US in awe but Simmons dilemma exposed
AMERICA is raving about Ben Simmons after the Aussie star tore Brooklyn to shreds for the second game in a row in Philadelphia's opening round playoff series, but his dominant effort highlighted a conundrum facing the franchise.
Simmons starred for the 76ers in their 131-115 triumph over the Nets on Friday (local time), shooting 31 points - a career-high in the postseason - to go with nine assists, four rebounds and three blocks.
He stepped up in the absence of injured All-Star centre Joel Embiid, continuing his red-hot form after posting a triple-double in Game Two.
Simmons' stunning performance came after Nets star Jared Dudley called him an "average" half-court player and Brooklyn fans put up a poster mocking his non-existent jump shot outside the stadium.
With his leading the series 2-1, Sixers coach Brett Brown was full of praise for Simmons, and American media also had plenty to say about the 22-year-old reaching a new level of influence on the court.
But amid all the kind words was a puzzle Philly must confront - is Simmons a better player, and are the Sixers a better team, without Embiid?
Sportscaster Colin Cowherd said the Simmons show had given Sixers fans a glimpse into the future - a future where Simmons is given full control of the team and doesn't have to share the limelight with his partner in crime.
"Last night is what the Philadelphia 76ers should look like going forward. Ben Simmons has got the ball, no centre clogging up the middle and a bunch of JJ Redicks and (Jimmy) Butlers and Tobias Harris on the outside. That is the future," Cowherd said.
"You cannot have two guys in the NBA on your roster that can't shoot threes, so you better pick one - Simmons - that can at least get the ball to guys who can shoot threes."
Cowherd said while Embiid was the more rounded product right now, Simmons had greater scope to evolve and Philly should put its faith in him over the giant centre. He called on the 76ers to look at trading Embiid.
"Basketball isn't just about what it used to be and what it is, it's about where it's going, and it's going to Simmons," Cowherd said.
"Outside of (NBA legend) Magic (Johnson) I've never even seen anyone who looks like Ben Simmons at point (guard).
"Get Simmons the ball. If you have a big with Simmons, it will clog up the lane … Embiid can't get it to shooters and control the tempo like Simmons.
"The Sixers last night, that's what they should look like."
Writing for Sports Illustrated, Rohan Nadkarni said Embiid's absence had helped Simmons because it allowed him to drive the offence in a much faster-paced game than it otherwise would have been had Embiid been on the court and fighting for position in the post.
"The style of play was reminiscent of what Simmons did during arguably the most dominant stretch of his career, a 16-game winning streak at the end of last season, much of which came with Embiid injured," Nadkarni wrote.
"Though the team has changed considerably since that streak, two things looked the same between that Simmons-led squad and the one we saw on Friday - pace and space.
"Let Ben Simmons run wild and Philly can still be a very dangerous team."
Dan Devine of The Ringer again focused on Simmons shining without Embiid by his side and said the Aussie was all class despite playing the "villain" as Brooklyn fans booed him whenever he touched the ball.
"As he was in Game Two, Simmons looked locked in from the jump, intent on being the aggressor and forcing the Nets to stop him on his way to the paint," Devine wrote.
"Even when Nets defenders sagged back to the foul line to try to induce him into shooting a jumper, though, Simmons got wherever he wanted and finished when he arrived.
"It seemed pretty clear that Simmons relished playing the heel at Barclays - in letting the boos wash over him, in letting the Nets try to push him out of his comfort zone and get him off his game, and in just ramming the ball down their throats anyway.
"If Embiid's going to be unavailable on Sunday, or limited throughout Philadelphia's stay in the postseason, the Sixers need something to fill the yawning void he leaves in the middle of their lineup.
"Simmons showed in Game Three that his full complement of skills - as an initiator, as a passer, as a screener, as a dive man, and as a rim-rocking finisher - can go a long way toward doing the job, and that he certainly doesn't lack for confidence when it comes to deploying them."
Forbes writer Howard Megdal said: "Simmons took it all in stride, which you can be sure the Sixers were watching. The idea that the playoff cauldron didn't swallow him up only reinforces how much he's going to be part of what Philly does next, no matter how else they build around him.
"Embiid may be 'The centrepiece', as (coach Brett) Brown refers to him, but that makes Simmons a cornerstone."