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Playoffs 2019

NBA Playoffs 2019: Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers have a Kawhi Leonard problem

Ben Simmons was the best player on the court when the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Toronto Raptors near the midpoint of this season. In 33 minutes of play, he led the 76ers to a blowout win with 26 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists on 11-of-13 shooting from the field.

According to Basketball Reference's Game Score, it was the fourth-most productive regular season game of Simmons' career so far.

But that's not why it's a noteworthy performance as the 76ers prepare themselves for their second-round matchup with the Raptors. The reason is because that was the only game Kawhi Leonard missed against the 76ers this season.

Not only did the Raptors win the other three by an average margin of 13.3 points, Simmons didn't come close to posting the same numbers he did in that December win. He had the same amount of turnovers as points (11) in the first meeting and failed to score double figures in the second - one of only eight times that happened this season.

Simmons played more to his usual standard in the fourth and final meeting, but he did the bulk of his damage after the outcome was no longer in question.

MORE: Raptors-76ers series preview

While it takes a team effort to slow down Simmons, especially in transition, Leonard was the primary reason he wasn't himself in those three games. According to NBA.com, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year guarded him for a total of 115 possessions, which is more than anyone else on Toronto's roster.

Simmons scored 17 points on 7-for-15 shooting when he was matched up with Leonard but committed nine turnovers - a third of which were offensive fouls - while distributing only 10 assists.

"He's a freak," Simmons said about Leonard after playing against him for the first time. "His hands are huge. He's got long arms. He's a great defender."

Of greater concern for the 76ers is the impact that had on their offence. According to NBA.com, they scored at a rate of 103.4 points per 100 possessions when both Simmons and Leonard were on the court compared to 110.6 when Simmons was out there without Leonard.

That's the difference between Philadelphia looking more like the Boston Celtics as opposed to the New York Knicks.

Most players who have had success guarding Simmons over the last couple of years have defended him in similar fashion - back way off of him to pack the paint, where he does almost all of his scoring, to encourage him to shoot jumpers he has no interest in taking.

Leonard, however, approaches the matchup slightly differently by picking Simmons up closer to the perimeter.

He made that clear in the opening seconds of the first game this season, when he pressured Simmons all the way out to the half court line on a broken play and ripped the ball away from him.

There are risks with defending Simmons that aggressively, but Leonard has proven to have the speed to keep up with him off the dribble, as well as the strength to prevent him from bulldozing his way to the basket and the length to shut down passing lanes.

Those same physical tools helped Leonard contain LeBron James in the 2014 NBA Finals. Simmons obviously isn't the player that LeBron is, but he's been compared to the four-time MVP throughout his career because of how he impacts the game as a "big guard."

The combination of his size and skill makes him a matchup nightmare for most - put someone bigger on him and he can blow by them but put someone smaller on him and he can punish them down low - which goes to show how unique of a defensive player Leonard is.

Leonard's ability to guard Simmons 1-on-1 is going to be a huge factor in the series because if his regular season success carries over into the playoffs, it will allow his teammates to focus on preventing the likes of J.J. Redick, Tobias Harris and Mike Scott from getting open 3s.

That's a big part of what makes him and the 76ers tick offensively - Simmons led the league in assisted 3-pointers this season, per ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry.

"Ben Simmons has really struggled, really struggled with Kawhi Leonard," Charles Barkley said after the Raptors and 76ers clinched their first-round series. "[Leonard] would not let [Simmons] dribble.

"He got to a point where Ben would kick the ball up court, and the 76ers could never get into their offence."

We'll soon find out if Simmons and the 76ers can figure out an answer to their Kawhi problem.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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