Celtics Winning Mind Game with Ben Simmons

Sixers star admits Celtics got inside his head in Game 2. Can Celtics continue their strategy in Philadelphia?

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The head coach and teammates said all the right things about Ben Simmons following their 22-point implosion Thursday night at TD Garden.

There were memes all over social media, photoshopping Simmons’ face on top of the iconic image of former 76ers legend Wilt Chamberlain holding up his famous “100” card after his game in Hershey, Pa. in March 1962. The two zeros were wiped out and there was Simmons on the picture holding up a piece of paper with the number “1”, the total sum of his scoring in the Game 2 loss to Boston.

The star that was at the center of their collapse was no where to be found in Game 2 and really hasn’t shown the form he displayed in the second half of the season that led Philadelphia on its historic 16-game winning streak to end the season. Simmons was 0-for-4 from the field, one free throw, five rebounds, seven assists and five turnovers.

The Celtics made it their mission to plant their bodies in his way and their mystique in Simmons’ head. Cut the head off the monster and the Sixers are completely lost. With the exception of J.J. Redick going off in the first half and T.J. McConnell leading a comeback in the second half of Game 2, that plan has been flawless in producing two wins.

“I think it was mainly what I did to myself,” said Simmons, who averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.2 assists during 81 regular season games. “I think, mentally, I was thinking too much, over-thinking the plays. Wasn’t just out there, flowing, playing the way that I play, which is free. I think, obviously I know what their game plan is. I got to play my game.”

His game produced 12 triple-doubles this season, third only to Russell Westbrook (25) and LeBron James (18). Simmons, who could beat out Utah’s Donovan Mitchell for rookie of the year, had another triple-double in Philly’s Game 4 win in Miami, the same game that saw the Sixers turn the ball over 26 times and somehow win the game. But in that game, Simmons had seven of the 26 turnovers, a warning sign perhaps of things to come.

The Sixers were a minus-23 when he was on the court. He was an absolute mess, forcing plays that just weren’t there. The Sixers likely would’ve have won the game if T.J. McConnell stayed in the game at point with seven minutes left. But Brett Brown, knowing it was just one game and that Simmons is still just 21 and needs to know he can have a bad game and the coach not lose confidence.

His no-show to this point of the series is a bit of a surprise. This is the leading candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year, as his coach reminded us after Game 2. He looked not just strong but remarkably poised in his first-ever playoff series against the physical Miami Heat. Led by a composed Simmons not taking the bait of the Heat players who tried to get into his head with physical play, the Sixers were able to send Miami to the beach in five games.

“Mental. Thinking too much. That’s the thing, I’m going to have bad games. It happens. Obviously, it’s not the perfect timing, but we’re heading home now. We have two home games that we need to take care of and handle business. We have the team to deal with the coach and stuff. Just got to go do it.”

Something else that’s not like Miami is the TD Garden crowd. They have flooded him with chants of “Not a rookie” and “He’s a rookie” to their own Jayson Tatum. Boston is an infinitely tougher place for someone like Simmons than South Beach. And it’s showed so far in this series.

The Celtics have tried a modified strategy, not being as physical but more active with different players taking turns staying in front of Simmons wherever he goes and cutting off his passing lanes.

“Al starts the game on him,” Brad Stevens said. “Marcus Morris, Semi (Ojeleye), Marcus Smart will just rotate. And we’re just trying to keep them in front; it’s hard to do. He’s a heck of a player and obviously he didn’t play as well tonight, but good players always respond. And so, we’re going to have to be even better in Game 3, but trying our best to keep him in front and – he’s really hard to guard with a smaller player because he’s so big and strong and shifty. So, we just – we’re fortunate to have a bunch of bodies to be able to kind of rotate guys.”

“I think the way Boston is guarding us in general is something that I respect,” Brett Brown said. “I have said, every time either pre or post game and when I see you at practice, I have said this before, (the Celtics) are elite guarding their own men. I think there’s a physicality and switch-ability that they got apples for apples on many, many different matchups. With Ben, I give them credit. They do a good job defending him. There’s an element of physicality that I feel that they have applied to all of us and Ben struggled as we see. I do give Boston’s defense a lot of credit and respect.”

Maybe it’s just not wanting to give the psychological edge to his opponent for Game 3 but Simmons showed no interest in playing the respect card. Asked if the physical play of Marcus Morris had an effect, Simmons appeared to dis the Celtics.

“I think first series, the way the Heat played is nothing compared to the Celtics,” Simmons said. “Physically, the Heat were on another level. But yeah, I think it was self – inflicted from myself, personally from my own game. Team wise, I think mentally we made too many errors when we had that lead and we need to stay on it.”

J.J. Redick, 33, was brought in for one year at $23 million, in part, to help mentor Simmons.

“Ben is very mature, very poised,” Redick said. “I know he will bring it on Saturday. I have no doubt. I will encourage him like I always do but there is nothing that I need to say, he brings it night in and night out. It wasn’t his best night but he will be fine.”

Simmons will first have to find out how to solve Stevens and the Celtics’ scheme before making Redick look prophetic.