BROOKLYN — The boos came down every time he touched the ball. Like rush hour traffic, they’d start, then stop, and repeat the exact same cycle over and over again, a seemingly endless barrage of booing, then cheering, then more booing, with those in the Barclays Center hammering home their point every chance they got. It was, routinely, in direct conflict with The Notorious B.I.G.’s definition of the Brooklyn way.
In response to all of this, the subject of those boos, Sixers do-everything guard/forward Ben Simmons, put forth the most brilliant playoff performance of his young career. Simmons was, to quote Philly head coach Brett Brown, exceptional, putting his fingerprints all over the game en route to a 131-115 win over the Nets.
Of course, the Sixers desperately needed this from Simmons. Despite warming up before the game and testing his injured knee, Philadelphia was without the services of Joel Embiid. The All-Star center sat on the end of the bench watching his team get the upper hand on Brooklyn, stealing back homecourt advantage following the Nets’ win at Wells Fargo Arena in Game 1.
Simmons, save for a bit of a hectic stretch at the end of the third quarter, was in complete control. The ambidextrous Aussie threw down a postseason career-high 31 points on 11-for-13 shooting from the field and a 9-for-11 clip from the free throw line. To boot, he pitched in nine assists, four rebounds, three blocks, and a pair of steals. Brooklyn, as is oftentimes the case for opponents when Simmons is locked all the way in, had zero answer for his ability to get into the paint and either score at the rim or distribute to his teammates.
“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,” Brown said. “He did it all tonight, particularly without Joel Embiid.”
As for why this was the game where he broke out, perhaps it was Embiid’s absence, or perhaps he likes being in Brooklyn, or perhaps it had something to do with the side of the bed he woke up on. But after the game, Simmons made one thing clear: It wasn’t because of the boos, nor did it have anything to do with the last day or two of banter with Brooklyn’s veteran forward Jared Dudley, who called Simmons “average” in the halfcourt on Wednesday.
“I try not to pay too much attention, going on social media and what people say, just because people are gonna say what they wanna say, and I can’t let that effect me on the floor,” Simmons said. “So I just try to do my job when I step on the floor and run the point guard position as best I can.”
Simmons wasn’t the only Sixer to put forth an “exceptional” performance in the eyes of his coach. While he was certainly the main antagonist in the story that was Game 3, the Nets could not stop the duo of Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick. Philly’s high-scoring midseason acquisition followed up a pair of subpar games to start the series (by his standards, at least) by getting white hot from the field and crashing the glass. Harris went for 29 points, highlighted by a 6-for-6 clip from three, with a game-high 16 rebounds.
Redick, meanwhile, was masterful, whizzing around the floor with aplomb and operating as one of the more annoying assignments for defenders due to his seemingly endless supply of energy; Brooklyn coach Kenny Anderson praised Redick’s ability to get open as “elite.” His night ended with 26 points and a 5-for-9 mark from deep. The best example of the way the duo impacted the game came following a Brooklyn time out in the third quarter — on back-to-back possessions, Redick and Harris let it fly from deep.
“The players talked about this on the bench,” Brown said. “One of our time outs, where I came back with a notion and they said, ‘That’s fine, but we think this.’ I said, ‘Let’s do both back to back.’ To listen to J.J. and Tobias and Jimmy carry on a conversation on the bench, it was high-level.”
Butler was the fourth “exceptional” player on the evening. As you might have noticed in the above clip, Butler doled out both assists. His 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting were, compared to his teammates, a bit quiet, but Butler’s distribution — whether as the team’s primary or secondary ball-handler to Simmons — was superb. For the second game in a row, Butler had seven assists, second only to his point guard.
Brooklyn certainly had its chances. The Sixers only led by six at the half, and following a wicked 14-3 run to close the third quarter, the lead was merely seven entering the final frame, with the Barclays Center on the verge of becoming completely unglued — D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert all praised the fans for their energy during the first playoff basketball game Brooklyn has seen since 2015.
Still, they came up short. The Nets’ marksmen had an off night, going 8-for-39 from downtown, and while there was plenty of offensive firepower in spite of this, led by matching 26-point outings from Russell and LeVert, Brooklyn’s defense struggled to piece together enough stops. Russell mentioned after the game that he believes these two things very well might be related going forward.
“I think we get those guys working on the defensive end, their shots may come up short or they may be a little fatigued on the offensive end,” Russell said.
Atkinson agreed, saying that the team’s transition defense wasn’t up to par and that their inability to make shots and get set defensively “hurt us.”
“When Ben gets out in transition, they get in transition, they’re tough to stop,” Atkinson said. “Like I said, we have to do a better job there, it’s one of the keys to the series.”
Brooklyn will get a chance to improve in that facet of the game on Saturday afternoon. They’ll be back in their building, in front of 19,000 screaming fans desperate to see the series return to Barclays for a Game 6. Embiid’s potential return looms gigantic, but even if he’s unable to go, if the Sixers showed on Thursday night that their other star players can get the job done.
“We have the pieces to get games, to complete games,” Simmons said of playing without Embiid. “I think everybody in our organization knows that. It’s about everybody stepping up and following the plan, the scouting report, whatever it is, and just locking in and buying into to what we have built.”