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To Live and Die With Ben Simmons

The Sixers’ potential is tied to their rookie point guard’s performance, which is a glaring issue when he no-shows

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With 1:44 left in Game 2 between the Sixers and the Celtics and Philadelphia behind by seven points, Ben Simmons drove to the rim. The Sixers had led by as many as 22 in the first half Thursday, but now Simmons was looking to cut the Celtics’ lead to five. Instead, he stumbled and missed the easy layup. The Sixers ultimately lost, 108-103.

Simmons’s face after the late-game blunder summed up his performance for the entire game:

Ben Simmons looking disappointed

Much to the chagrin of Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons technically is a rookie, and against a feisty Celtics team unafraid to rattle him, he played like one. The Celtics have exposed Simmons’s weaknesses on offense. He took four shots and made none. His single point came from a free throw, and he finished with a shocking, putrid minus-23. (Simmons was a minus-21 in Game 1.) It wasn’t just his lack of scoring. He usually compensates with impressive assists and general command on the court, but Boston muted his impact in the passing game too. He still had seven assists, but was forced into five turnovers—the most of any Sixer.

Through two games, Boston has put the clamps on Simmons, throwing a much stronger defense at him than he faced from Miami. The Celtics’ impact on his rhythm is distorting how the entire team functions. Joel Embiid and, in this series, Robert Covington are crucial scorers, but their contributions are tied to the pace that Simmons sets. It’s a testament to his value but also a glaring issue when he’s not playing his best.

Without a thriving Simmons, the Sixers look discombobulated at times, desperate for another playmaker and forced to dump the ball to Embiid in the post or rely on a fadeaway 3 from either J.J. Redick or Marco Belinelli. Simmons was so stymied in Game 2 that Brett Brown opted to give T.J. McConnell extended minutes—and he was far more impactful than Simmons, finishing with eight points, five assists, and a team-high plus-16.

“I think mentally, I was thinking too much,” Simmons said postgame.

Simmons’s off night couldn’t have come at a worse time. Embiid didn’t have a great game, but he hit big shots down the stretch. Covington had his best game of the playoffs, scoring 22 points and hitting four 3s. He also played the best defense of any Sixer. Given how streaky Covington is, it’s a shame Philly wasted one of his good games. It’s one of the few times Simmons has struggled this season, and he’s judged by the high standard he’s set. The fall is harder when he’s already achieved so much.

The Celtics have never lost a series in which they’ve held a 2-0 lead; in their team history, they’re 36-0 in that situation. If Simmons fails to show up in any of the Sixers’ home games, then Philly won’t be able to buck that trend, and the series will be over before the first “Trust the Process” chant at Wells Fargo Center begins.