Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers

Celtics' stifling defense provides Ben Simmons with biggest NBA challenge yet

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76ers guard Ben Simmons attempts to drive past Celtics guard Marcus Smart (Getty Images)

BOSTON - With 7:14 to play in the first quarter, and Game 2 of the Celtics-Sixers conference semifinal matchup in its infancy, Ben Simmons knocked down the first of two free throws after a foul on Al Horford to make the score 11-5. He missed the second attempt. From there, Simmons proceeded to miss a layup and a short jumper in the first half, then miss another layup and a seven-foot jumper in the fourth quarter. His final scoring line: one point, 0-for-4 shooting.

Of all the wild swings and remarkable performances, despite the Sixers' 22-point first-half lead and the Celtics' roaring response, even with the return of Boston guard Jaylen Brown from a hamstring injury and the stretch of the game in which Philly's J.J. Redick was infallible, the number that just can't be ignored here is one. That measly one point that Simmons scored.

It was the worst game of Simmons' NBA life in the biggest game of his NBA life. Now, Boston's improbable 108-103 win to seize a 2-0 series lead is not only buoying a Celtics bunch thought to be in over its head this late in the postseason without injured star guard Kyrie Irving, but will become a jumping-off point for a complete psychological examination of Simmons, the likely Rookie of the Year who had been held below double-digit scoring just nine times this season.

After witnessing the mysteries of Markelle Fultz's gray matter linger over the Sixers for most of this year, and the uncertainty around Joel Embiid last year, it would be fitting if we spent the last portion of this outstanding Sixers season dissecting the mental health of Simmons. Certainly, the first two games of the series suggest something is off with him.

Simmons, after the game, dismissed that notion, pronouncing himself fine and well-adjusted, if a bit overstimulated. He was not going to use his time in front of the gathered media to praise the Celtics or admit they had him rattled.

"I think it was really what I did to myself," Simmons said when asked what the Celtics had done to throw him off. "I think mentally, I was thinking too much, overthinking the plays. I was not out there flowing, playing the way I play, which is free. Obviously, they have a game plan and I think I know what that game plan is. But I just gotta play my game."

To blame overthinking after a game in which you logged seven assists and five turnovers to go with scoring one point (not to mention the seven turnovers in Game 1) is the equivalent of being in a job interview and claiming your worst quality is that you're a perfectionist.

Simmons has been manhandled in this series. He has been defended by Celtics players who are bigger, tougher and smarter than those he'd seen in the first round against Miami and in the month before the start of the playoffs, when the Sixers closed out the season with a 16-game winning streak.

Roughneck forward Marcus Morris has had the primary assignment against Simmons in this series. He is adept at sticking with Simmons when he puts the ball on the floor, funneling him toward help defense and using his forearms when needed.

Typically, though, the Celtics have a picket-fence-style defense set up for Simmons, giving him little room to drive and create shots for himself or teammates. Because of Morris' size - 6-9 - he is able to switch easily in pick-and-rolls, meaning Simmons almost always has a Celtic positioned between him and the basket.

Sixers coach Brett Brown deflected a question about Simmons, sprinkling the blame all around the rotation.

"I think the way Boston is guarding us in general is something that I respect," Brown said. "I think there's a physicality and switchability that they got apples for apples on many, many different matchups. With Ben (Simmons), I give him credit. They do a good job defending him.

"There's an element of physicality that I feel that they have applied to all of us, and tonight Ben struggled as we see."

That's the downside, strange as it may be to consider, of being a 6-10 point guard like Simmons. You can be guarded by a power forward and lose any advantage in the pick-and-roll. That goes a long way toward explaining why T.J. McConnell, all 6-2 of him, was a tougher assignment for the Celtics defense. McConnell had eight points on 4-for-4 shooting, with five assists and no turnovers.

He was a plus-16 on the night. Simmons was a minus-23. It was little wonder Brown appeared so hesitant to remove McConnell for Simmons to close the fourth quarter. Simmons came in with 5:29 to play in the game and the Sixers ahead by two points. The Celtics went on a 13-4 run in the 3:32 that followed, taking control of the lead late in the game - with Simmons on the floor and McConnell on the bench.

"Al (Horford) starts the game on him," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "Marcus Morris, Semi (Ojeleye), Marcus Smart will just rotate. And we're just trying to keep them in front; it's hard to do... Trying our best to keep him in front and - he's really hard to guard with a smaller player because he's so big and strong and shifty. So, we just - we're fortunate to have a bunch of bodies to be able to kind of rotate guys."

At one point, with 3:11 to play in the game, Morris got into Simmons' body on a drive near the rim and blocked the shot. But Simmons would not credit the Celtics on their physical play - he said Miami had been tougher, physically, than Boston.

And again, he insisted that the only problem he'd had on this night was between his ears.

"Thinking too much," Simmons said. "That's the thing, I'm going to have bad games. It happens. Obviously, it's not the perfect timing, but we're heading home now. We have two home games that we need to take care of and handle business. We have the team to deal with the coach and stuff. Just got to go do it."

There will be much riding on Game 3 for Simmons. Plenty of star players - we saw this in the first round with Milwaukee - have gone into Boston and not held up to their usual standards. But Simmons will be going back to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4, and will do so under a microscope and carrying greater expectations.

He's got to handle it better than he handled these two games in Boston.

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