BROOKLYN — Ben Simmons slowly advanced the ball, sapping precious seconds off the shot clock as time elapsed in the fourth quarter. Only this time, the boos that were so raucous from the Barclays Center crowd had fizzled. They had turned into devastation of what had happened on their own home floor, into fear of what was to come.
After all, Simmons had dominated Brooklyn thoroughly in Philadelphia’s 131-115 Game 3 victory. He scored 31 points on 11-of-13 shooting, a playoff career-high on remarkable efficiency. He scored in transition, in the half-court, as a roller off screens, and as a cutter. Brett Brown described his performance as “exceptional.” It was almost a perfect game for a player who was called “average” in half-court situations by Brooklyn Nets forward Jared Dudley.
So on this possession, with Philadelphia up 13 and just about four minutes left in the final period, Simmons strolled up the floor with nary a boo to be heard. The Brooklyn crowd that had hated him all game now respected him, or they had left a game that was already decided.
Simmons advanced the ball meticulously, all game long, as if to prove he’s not just a phenom in transition. He dribbled to the three-point line and faked a dribble hand-off to a flaring J.J. Redick. Brooklyn’s defenders chased Redick.
Simmons deftly made a bee line for the rim, like a quarterback keeping the ball on an option play, then darting untouched to the end zone. In that moment, he was the best player on the floor who was fooling everyone, except the rim he punished.
Of Simmons’ 11 made baskets on 85-percent shooting from the field, this was the most devastating. Brooklyn’s defense had eight seconds to set itself. A stop here and a basket on the other end made this a 10-point game. Maybe D’Angelo Russell gets hot. Maybe Caris LeVert’s incredible night adds another chapter.
But Simmons threw down a dunk so ferocious, so punctuating, it sucked whatever life was left out the building. In a game without Philadelphia’s most dominating force, it was Simmons’ presence that overpowered Brooklyn. He was unstoppable. He was far, far from average in half-court situations.
"I thought it was one of Ben’s more dominant games,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said after the game. “I thought Ben was exceptional ... Whether you look at his confidence, his body language, just walking to the line or the things he did with organic play, I give Ben a tremendous amount of credit. He did it all tonight, particularly without Joel Embiid.”
Superstars in the NBA have signature playoff games. Kobe Bryant’s first was on June 4, 2000, when he willed the Lakers back from down 15 in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against Portland. LeBron James’ first was in 2007, when he scored 25 straight points to stun the Pistons. Kawhi Leonard’s most recent one was torching Golden State in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, then watching San Antonio subsequently collapse after his quad injury. Giannis Antetokounmpo has yet to have his, but he will soon.
Simmons just recorded his first. After all, there’s something to be said for talking that talk, then backing it up. When Dudley called Simmons “average in the half-court,” Simmons’ response was: “That’s coming from Jared Dudley. Come on.”
He then refused to talk about it any further. Instead, his play did the talking.
That play spoke volumes. His final stat line: 31 points, nine assists, four rebounds, three steals and two blocks. He became the first Sixers player to register 30 and nine in a playoff game since Allen Iverson, and just the second Sixers player to ever score more than 30 on at least 80-percent shooting. The other is Wilt Chamberlain.
In Brooklyn’s first playoff game since 2015, Simmons turned incessant boos into deafening silence. He played like he had something to prove. That he’s not just an average half-court player, hamstrung by the lack of a perimeter jump shot. That he is one of the most dominant young players the NBA has to offer, who can take over a game on a whim when needed.
When the pressure was on, when the lights shined brightest, when the boos were the loudest, he took control and never let go. After Brooklyn stole Game 1 in Philly, the Sixers bounced back in Game 2, then ripped away Game 3 at Barclays. The series still has at least two games to go, but Simmons’ dominance made it feel as if this one is over already.