Just two nights after stifling one of the biggest anomalies in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Boston swiftly moved on to its next challenge: containing the 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons. The Celtics are running a clinic on how to defend the future of the NBA, and that was once again on display Monday night in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the Sixers. A data visualization of the game would resemble a lattice structure, an interlacing network of defenders from all positions finding ways to bother the Sixers’ lead guard.
How do you stop an elite creator with his size and athleticism? That’s been the question haunting the league since October, when Simmons began blazing the trail for his stellar Rookie of the Year campaign. The utter lack of a jump shot was supposed to be exposed in the playoffs, but Simmons attacked the weak links in Philly’s first-round series against the Heat with conviction and shut everyone up over the course of five games. Maybe it really didn’t matter. It’s hard to discredit the vacuum effect a best-of-seven series can have on our expectations. After he dismantled Miami, it was fair to wonder whether he’d ever need a jumper.
But the rookie hit several brick walls in the Sixers’ 117-101 Game 1 loss against the Celtics. Simmons spent much of his time on Celtics guards, but on the cross-match found himself defended by a roving, oddly interchangeable array of stout bodies: Al Horford, a power forward or center, depending on time and place; Marcus Smart, a guard who defends his airspace like a 7-footer; and Semi Ojeleye, a 3-and-D wing with a body mass denser than the Earth’s core. Simmons finished the game with 18 points, seven rebounds, and six assists, not too far removed from his season averages. But his impact was muted, and it was clear from the start that the Celtics have a collection of players uniquely suited to match his length if they can’t match his height, his height if they can’t match his strength, or his strength if they can’t match his speed. It led to seven turnovers on the night, only the seventh time in Simmons’s first 87 games as a pro when he had more giveaways than assists.
Simmons hesitated when it was clear there weren’t any easy paths to the basket or any open gaps to thread the needle through. There were many passes thrown to nowhere and even more moments of midair indecision that were within milliseconds of traveling violations. It was in those moments—especially considering the Sixers were battling back from a double-digit deficit for much of the night—that the ever-present worry about Simmons’s inability to shoot began to rear its head.
When the Sixers can’t get anything going from anyone around the arc, Simmons’s unwillingness to create his own offense from outside the paint becomes a glaring issue. Philly was a ghastly 5-of-26 from 3, and while none of that was directly Simmons’s doing, his inability to generate momentum on drives killed a lot of the rhythm for the teammates hanging around Simmons’s and Joel Embiid’s orbits. The Celtics successfully baited both of Philly’s stars to hunker down in the post and try to take advantage of their physical superiority to create opportunities. It worked—both Simmons and Embiid scored efficiently around the rim, but that’s not enough when the team as a whole has to make up for a 36-point disadvantage on 3-pointers.
Simmons was uneven on defense, too. There were moments he had on Terry Rozier that showed just how special he can be as a defender, to glide in lockstep with a shifty 6-foot-2 guard and not miss a beat. He also spent a lot of time away from the ball, almost serving as a safety in the defense, but often found himself too far from the strong side of the play to make much of a difference. In the first half, when Jayson Tatum was roasting J.J. Redick, it would have been nice to see Brett Brown lean on Simmons as more of a stopper, but against a Celtics offense that is so motion-heavy, it’s a luxury to have a player with Simmons’s physical tools be in multiple places at once. Brown will be making adjustments, for sure, but this could also be a case where you throw your hands up. The complexion of a game just completely changes when a team can get a 3-pointer from eight different players on their roster, as the Celtics did.
In Game 1 of Philly’s first-round series, the Sixers turned math into an existential crisis for the Heat by putting on the fourth-most-efficient 3-point shooting performance in NBA postseason history, hitting 18 of their 28 3-point attempts; in Game 1 of the second round, the Celtics flipped the script, going 17-of-35. As much as the 3-pointer has increased the variance of games, it has also established a buffer zone for teams that just happen to be in the zone. There’s not much to do against a team that hits 15 or more 3s in a game other than match its production. There’s also not much a team can do when it shoots 19.2 percent from behind the arc.
The playoffs have already exposed the dilemmas that befall point guards who rely more on their otherworldly athleticism than their prowess from deep. Simmons’s situation is unique in that he has at least 6 inches on players like Russell Westbrook and John Wall—and unlike those two, he’ll fling a shot from 3 onlly in the most desperate (and pointless) situations. Simmons is a point guard not only in name, but in form and function. He is the nonshooting engine who allows the team’s 3-point barrage to flourish, the omnipositional defender who is a walking mismatch every second he’s on the floor.
But we all knew this moment of reckoning was due; coaches and players are too smart, and the playoffs are too long, for teams to ignore an Achilles’ heel when it’s presented. In kind, the Sixers have too much talent on their roster not to have an emphatic response. But it should be at least a little bit troubling that in finding it, they’ll have to pull double duty in dismantling the Celtics’ game plan while also reshaping the aura that Simmons had played with all season long.