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In Gotham, Ben Simmons Has Seen Himself Become the Villain

Brooklyn’s fury drove the Sixers star to the best postseason performance of his career. With Joel Embiid’s day-to-day availability in doubt, Simmons has to take the mantle. Game 3 proved he can.

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Joel Embiid is everything to the Philadelphia 76ers: offensive focal point, defensive centerpiece, and sneering talisman; The Process made flesh and proved righteous; the difference between a team that can reasonably harbor NBA Finals aspirations and one that produced the point differential of a 27-win team when he was off the floor.

He was off the floor on Thursday. All of 13 minutes before the listed 8 p.m. ET start time of a pivotal Game 3 on the road against the Brooklyn Nets, who had seized home-court advantage away from favored Philly last Saturday, the 76ers announced that their All-Star center’s ailing left knee wasn’t good enough to go. (Sixers coach Brett Brown might have had a feeling that would be the case. Asked during his pregame press conference whether he’d given any thought to the importance of involving Ben Simmons in the offense early on, he said, “I do think it more when Joel ... if Joel doesn’t play tonight.”) This time, though, it didn’t matter, because the Sixers still had Ben Simmons, and as it turns out, he’s not half bad in the Sneering Locus of Dominance department himself.

Simmons was the best player on the floor in Brooklyn on Thursday, bossing the game on both ends on his way to a career-playoff-high 31 points, nine assists, four rebounds, three blocks, and two steals as he led Philadelphia to a commanding 131-115 win. With the victory, the Sixers regain home-court advantage; another in Saturday’s Game 4 would give them the chance to close things out back at Wells Fargo Center next Tuesday.

From the very first time that Simmons touched the ball in Game 3, Nets fans in the stands at Barclays Center serenaded him with boos—a villain’s reward. (And, if we’re keeping score, the second set of jeers that the Philly playmaking savant has heard already this postseason.) Simmons became the object of Brooklyn’s animosity for a couple of reasons: his role in the post–Game 2 presser, during which he and Embiid shared a laugh over Embiid’s apology for a flagrant-foul-generating elbow to the head of Nets center Jarrett Allen; and his piquant sparring with Nets forward Jared Dudley, which began with the veteran proclaiming Simmons a great player in transition who becomes less effective in half-court action and continued with the reigning Rookie of the Year roundly dismissing Dudley’s criticism, implying that a role-playing graybeard's notes are beneath his stature.

Plus, y’know, he was there. With Embiid in street clothes, Nets fans directed all their ire at the imperious 6-foot-10 point guard, hoping to further rattle the cage of a visiting team without its best player and will the underdog home side to a 2-1 lead. But despite Embiid’s game-time decision and despite Brown inserting little-used late-season addition Greg Monroe into the starting lineup in Embiid’s stead, the Sixers stayed the course and controlled the action throughout.

Tobias Harris turned in his best game in a Philadelphia uniform, pouring in 29 points on 11-for-19 shooting, including a perfect 6-for-6 mark from 3-point range, to go with a game-high 16 rebounds and three assists. JJ Redick ran Joe Harris ragged off the ball and caught fire in the second half, drilling four of his five 3-pointers and finishing with 26 points. Jimmy Butler remained quietly effective on both ends of the floor as a dogged perimeter defender and Philly’s new de facto backup point guard, chipping in 16 points and seven assists.

“We have the pieces to get games—to complete games,” Simmons said after the game. “And I think everybody in our organization knows that. It’s about everybody stepping up and following the plan, the scouting report, whatever it is, and just locking in, and buying into what we have built, that foundation.”

Brown leaned on his two healthy traditional bigs—the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Monroe and the 7-foot-3, 290-pound Boban Marjanovic—to drop back in pick-and-roll coverage like Embiid mostly does, trusting his wings to stay in front of Brooklyn drivers and to stick to ball handlers to avoid giving up clean looks in the pick-and-roll. There were some hairy moments, especially in Monroe’s minutes, with Brooklyn crashing the offensive glass early, and D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and Spencer Dinwiddie getting all the way to the cup against the conservative coverage. But with Philly’s wings fighting over screens and collapsing on the paint to help on the boards, Monroe and Marjanovic did their level best to meet slashers with force, alter shots at the rim, and provide as reasonable a facsimile of Embiid’s production as possible. They’d combine for 23 points, 21 rebounds, two steals, two blocks, and two assists, but Philly polished off the win matching Brooklyn’s small-ball lineup by lining up Mike Scott at the five against Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and running actions through Simmons as an ostensible point center.

As he was in Game 2, Simmons looked locked in from the jump, intent on being the aggressor and forcing the Nets to stop him on his way to the paint. Even when Nets defenders sagged back to the foul line to try to induce him into shooting a jumper, though, Simmons got wherever he wanted and finished when he arrived; he made 11 of his 13 field goal attempts and even shooting 9-for-11 when Brooklyn forced him to the foul line.

Dudley, on the other hand, struggled in his return to the lineup after missing Game 2 with right calf tightness. He went scoreless in 17 minutes, missing both 3-pointers he took, including an air ball, which Simmons sure seemed to enjoy:

After the game, Simmons again refused to entertain Dudley’s “average” commentary, and insisted—after a smirk—that he didn’t think twice about the veteran missing everything when he fired from deep.

“I don’t really have energy for it, man,” he said. “Honestly. It’s done. People are gonna say what they wanna say. It is what it is. I’ve just got to play.”

To which, I say:

It seemed pretty clear that Simmons relished playing the heel at Barclays on Thursday—in letting the boos wash over him, in letting the Nets try to push him out of his comfort zone and get him off his game, and in just ramming the ball down their throats anyway. If Embiid’s going to be unavailable on Saturday, or limited throughout Philadelphia’s stay in the postseason, the Sixers need something to fill the yawning void he leaves in the middle of their lineup. Simmons showed in Game 3 that his full complement of skills—as an initiator, as a passer, as a screener, as a dive man, and as a rim-rocking finisher—can go a long way toward doing the job, and that he certainly doesn’t lack for confidence when it comes to deploying them.

Brown explained after the game that he went with Monroe (who’d logged all of 61 minutes as a Sixer after joining the team in April, and hadn’t played a single possession with Philly’s other four starters before Game 3) and Marjanovic because he felt confident in using those “legitimate bigs” to keep the Sixers in the same defensive scheme they use when Embiid’s on the court, with Scott and Jonah Bolden as his Plans B and C against smaller, faster, switchier opponents. But given the relative limitations of his other options, Brown might need to consider putting Simmons to work at the 5 spot surrounded by wing shooters as the postseason wears on. The better teams the Sixers will need to beat to get out of the East—including potential matchups with Toronto, Milwaukee, or Boston—will exploit Monroe’s iffy rim protection, Marjanovic’s lack of foot speed, Bolden’s inexperience, and Scott’s difficulty defending in space. Going to Simmons at center might leave Philly a little smaller than Brown would like, but it could also be the most dynamic and effective option on the board against elite opposition—and, in the short term, the one that gives the Sixers the best chance of knocking off Brooklyn in short order.

The Nets are wobbling, and it sure seems like Embiid could use as much time as possible to get right for heavier lifting ahead. So maybe now’s the time to let Simmons take center stage. The scariest opponents are the ones you can’t faze, and Simmons looked on Thursday like a player ready to shoulder more responsibility without buckling in the face of the pressure. The Sixers would surely prefer to have their MVP candidate on the court, but until he’s ready to roll, Simmons might be just the villain they need to stay the course without him.