PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers made almost 58 percent of their shots in Sunday’s 143-120 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, but the most discussed shot after the game was one that didn’t go in.
That would be the 3-pointer Ben Simmons took less than a minute into the third quarter of Sunday’s blowout win for the Sixers, their second in a row with their new-look starting five. But, given the potential ramifications for this team if it ever becomes a regular occurrence, it also arguably could have been the most important one they took all game.
“I might as well come down and pull it,” Simmons said of the attempt, which came in the middle of the shot clock. “I didn’t really think about it.”
Everyone else, though, couldn’t stop thinking — or talking — about it.
“I loved it,” Tobias Harris said. “And it was in the basket, too.”
“A little bit like everybody’s,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said when asked what the bench’s reaction was when Simmons took the shot. “Like, ‘OK.'”
When asked for his thoughts on the shot, Joel Embiid — as usual — was far more descriptive. After JJ Redick said he “wasn’t shocked” by the Simmons shot, Embiid turned to him and said, “You sure?” Then, after the laughter died down, Embiid described the play from his vantage point.
“It actually was going in,” he said. “Me personally, I was getting ready to run the play and then I just literally I just saw the ball go over, and I was like, ‘Oh s—.’ It caught me off guard, and then I was in the position where [I was thinking], ‘What just happened?'”
He wasn’t alone in being surprised. For all of the success Simmons has created for himself over the past season-and-a-half — including winning Rookie of the Year last season and being voted into the All-Star Game as a reserve last month — it is his lack of a jump shot that often becomes the biggest talking point about his game. That comes both from how many things Simmons does well — as a 6-foot-10 point guard who weighs 230 pounds, he has drawn comparisons to both a man he was playing against (LeBron James) and who was watching from the crowd (Magic Johnson) for a reason — and how useful his jumper is compared to the rest of his game.
For example: Markelle Fultz, despite all of the issues he has had with his jumper, has gone 4-for-14 from 3-point range this season in 19 games. Even after Sunday’s attempt, Simmons has now taken three of them in 55 games. All but Sunday’s came at the end of a quarter or shot clock, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
That lack of shooting from Simmons is what, according to Brown, prompted a discussion between the coach and his star point guard in the 24 hours leading up to Sunday’s game. Brown, who likes to break Philadelphia’s season down into thirds, said he and Simmons discussed how they could use the final third of the season — which technically began Sunday for the now 36-20 Sixers — to best prepare Simmons for the playoffs.
Simmons struggled against the Boston Celtics in Philadelphia’s five-game loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals a year ago, and Sunday afternoon saw James practically dare Simmons into shooting by spending most of his time guarding him standing underneath the basket.
“We’ve talked about this a lot, and I thought it looked good,” Brown said. “The shot looked good. The rhythm of it looked good. It was close to going in. He didn’t look uncomfortable shooting it. And he can tell you the story if he chooses, but he and I spoke about this notion for a little bit in the last 24 hours. What’s going to happen in the third third of the regular season? What can we do to prepare you for the playoffs, and what’s coming?
“We all saw to an extreme LeBron not guard him, and we all have memories of the Celtics series, so somewhere in the middle we have a window of 27 or whatever amount of games left and I’d like to try some of this stuff in the final games here before the All-Star break, and take off with it for the final third. It’s a long explanation to your question, but the underbelly of the reason is significant.”
For Simmons, that conversation boiled down to one thing: growing more willing to take the shots the opposing defenses, like James and the Lakers, are going to give him.
“I think just being more aggressive, taking more open shots, and just trying to grow my game in that way,” he said. “I think I’m getting there. It just takes time, but I’m going to get there.”
With Philadelphia’s new-look starting five, the Sixers have ways to attack that extra space in ways besides having Simmons shoot. One of them is utilizing him in dribble-handoffs with a sharpshooter like Redick when a player like James is giving Simmons so much space. In the fourth quarter, Philadelphia ran a play out of a timeout that got Redick an open 3 that specifically took advantage of how far away James was from Simmons on a typical offensive set.
But even with the amount of firepower Philadelphia now has at its disposal after acquiring Harris in a blockbuster trade with the Clippers last week, Simmons’ complete lack of a perimeter shot is still viewed as a potential Achilles’ heel for this team’s chances of making it out of the murderous final couple rounds of the East playoffs and reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.
It should come as no surprise then that, to a man, everyone on the Sixers was publicly encouraging Simmons to keep shooting 3s moving forward — regardless of whether they go in.
“I thought it was in,” Embiid said. “It was in and out. I wish he would’ve made it. But he’s been working on that. Everyday we tell him he’s got to shoot it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
“I’m a 30 percent 3-point shooter, and you’ve got guys that jump on my fake. I don’t understand how that’s possible, but they still do. So every day he works on it and I think it’s coming. That was the first step, and I hope that he keeps shooting.”
For his part, Simmons said he would — but also that, even if he begins taking more 3s, he isn’t going to allow it to take away from the other parts of his game that have made him into an elite player already without having a credible threat of a jump shot.
“I will start pulling up,” he said, “but it’s not [the] one thing I am looking at. It’s not everything. I’m not focused on just doing that. I am going to play my game, play to my strengths, and continue to try to get better.”