Philadelphia 76ers wing Ben Simmons had his hands full on defense in the first half of Friday’s eventual 127-111 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Trying to keep up with Hawks star Trae Young is no simple assignment.
But with the Sixers clinging to a five-point lead at the break, and Simmons scoring just four points up to that point — matching his point total from Game 2 — Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers challenged him to do more.
“We just thought he passed up too many opportunities — in the fast break, at the post. And so we told him we were going to come out and feature him on the post,” Rivers said of Simmons. “And he was great for us. It’s exactly what we need. With his pace and power, it was great.”
Simmons scored 11 of his 18 points in the third and added three of his seven assists. Philadelphia, playing on the road, outscored Atlanta by 15 in the quarter, starting off 8-for-8 as a team after halftime. Simmons and fellow Sixers star Joel Embiid scored or assisted on 30 of Philly’s 34 points in the period.
“That was definitely the quarter they were able to get their momentum and get separation,” said Young, who still scored a game-high 28 points on 9-for-17 shooting and made eight assists.
According to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, Simmons ended the game guarding Young 42 out of 85 plays.
“It’s exhausting when you think about what we’re asking Ben to do: follow Trae Young around, follow him around screens and push the ball up the floor with pace,” Rivers said. “That’s all we talked about at halftime when one of my coaches reminded me that he was guarding Trae when I was yelling at him about pace.
“He said, ‘He is guarding Trae, too.’ So, it’s tough. But he’s young, he has endurance, so it’s been good for us.”
When asked afterward about Rivers’ halftime directive, Simmons tried to stifle a satisfied smile.
“I was just trying to push the pace, get in the lanes, find my guys and stay aggressive. Get to the rim,” he said. “I think I did a good job of that, that second half.”
It was Simmons’ first game since Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was named Defensive Player of the Year, but he seemed to shrug off his second-place finish, much the same way Embiid breezed past coming in second for MVP.
“Congrats to Rudy. I mean, it is what it is,” Simmons said. “I’m not really concerned about individual awards. I want the championship. So that’s my goal. Honestly, the goal is never Defensive Player of the Year. It’s just to go out there and do my job and try to be the best defender in the league, regardless of the awards.
“But the ultimate goal is a championship. And that’s why I got to do my job at a high level.”
Embiid finished with 27 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, becoming just the second 76ers player in franchise history to average 35 points and 10 rebounds over a three-game playoff span, after Wilt Chamberlain, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
Much like Rivers, Embiid encouraged Simmons to take over because of the way Atlanta was shadowing him with Clint Capela all the way up the floor and then frequently sending double-teams in his direction.
“I just told him, ‘You need to be aggressive and you need to attack, because there’s a lot of space. Especially with the way they’re guarding me,'” Embiid said. “So I told him to just be aggressive and just go out there and just dominate.”
Simmons made sure Embiid stayed in the mix, of course, finding the All-Star big man with the prettiest play of the night: an over-the-shoulder alley-oop he threw to a cutting Embiid midway through the third quarter to put Philly up 16.
“We’ve been playing together for so long that we know each other,” Embiid said. “He knows me, he knows where I need the ball and I also know how I can get him open. So it was a good pass, and I just did my best to finish it.”