Trail Blazers Get a Reminder of What Ben Simmons Should Be
The enigmatic Nets star looked a lot more like himself in Portland on Thursday.
The Nets are so dysfunctional for other reasons right now that the presence of Ben Simmons has been an afterthought. On Thursday, the Trail Blazers—and the NBA—got a reminder of what he's supposed to be.
First, the weird part: Simmons checked into the game with around five minutes left in the first quarter and was greeted by a loud chorus of boos. The boos picked up again the first time he touched the ball, a possession that ended in him scoring easily.
Why this crowd felt compelled to boo Simmons so strongly, I couldn't tell you. He has no history with this team, other than a year of online speculation about trades involving CJ McCollum. Maybe there are more Philadelphia transplants in Portland than I realized. Land wherever you want to on the way things ended for Simmons with the Sixers, but you'd understand that kind of reaction for him there. Here? It's tough to say what that was about.
What was even more surprising than the reaction, given how his first season in Brooklyn has gone so far, was what happened when he entered the game. For the first time since at least the 2021 playoffs and maybe longer, he looked like Ben Simmons, the former No. 1 overall pick, a uniquely impactful defender and playmaker. And the Nets team around him looked like the kind of group best suited to utilize his skillset and cover up his weaknesses.
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Simmons fouled out late in the fourth quarter, but he finished with 15 points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting, all at the rim, along with 13 rebounds, seven assists, a block and only one turnover. Maybe Portland will be ground zero for Simmons getting his groove back. As an NBA fan, it would be nice to have that bizarre saga in the rear-view mirror.
"People have been giving him a hard time, but he's capable of having those types of games," Damian Lillard said. "He can have that type of impact. Tonight, he came out in the first half and went 4-for-4, he was feeling good about himself. When you let a guy feel good about himself, he can have that kind of game, especially a talented player. If you let him start believing and get comfortable, he can make it tough for you."
All night, Simmons bothered Lillard and kept him from getting to his spots. Lillard continued to pick his spots as a playmaker on an off shooting night, but shot just 8-for-24 from the field and 3-of-12 from three-point range.
Chauncey Billups got so frustrated with this newly effective version of Simmons that he deployed the Hack-a-Ben strategy on two straight possessions in the fourth quarter (Simmons made them pay by making three of the four free-throws).
"I felt like one, we wanted to break their rhythm, and two, Ben was struggling from the free-throw line," Billups said after the game when I asked him about it. "If it wasn't him, it was gonna be [Nic] Claxton. I was really upset at halftime, because going into the game, they had two guys that were shooting poorly from the free-throw line getting their way around the basket. Claxton was 4-for-5 in the first half, Ben Simmons was 4-for-4. And they weren't shooting jumpers. So how does that happen? We've got to be locked in and make them earn it. We did a better job in the second half, but by then, they were in a pretty decent rhythm."
The Blazers on Thursday shot 38.7 percent from the field, were outrebounded 47-37, outscored in the paint and in transition and got a combined 18-for-57 shooting performance from Lillard, Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant—and still had a chance to tie or take the lead with less than a second remaining on a lob play that didn't work out. It's the kind of ugly game that they won against the Spurs on Tuesday, but the Spurs don't have Kevin Durant.
They play again in Brooklyn in just over a week. By then, Kyrie Irving will presumably be back. Who knows what that will do to the all-important vibes, but the Blazers are glad they're not in that position.
"They're going through a lot," Billups said before the game. "They're always going through a lot. It makes me thankful for our team, to be honest with you."