Earlier this month, Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons made a bold declaration: “I feel like I’m the best defender in the NBA.” On Thursday, he once again staked his claim, telling the Inside the NBA crew, “I do feel like I’m the best defensive player in the league. I can guard 1-5.”
After how he shut down Luka Doncic in the Sixers’ comfortable 111-97 win over the Dallas Mavericks, it’s easy to see why he feels that way. Taking on most of the responsibility himself, Simmons forced the young maestro into one of his worst games of the season: 19 points on 6 of 13 from the field, four assists and seven turnovers. It was just the fourth time that Doncic has failed to reach 20 points this season, and tied for his second-most turnovers in a game.
Doncic tried to play it cool after the game, saying, “I don’t really pay attention to who’s on me. I just try to play my game. Sometimes I’m gonna play it better, sometimes worse.” It was certainly the latter on Thursday, and that was largely because Simmons’ unique combination of length and athleticism made his life miserable.
Let’s take a closer look at how Simmons got the job done:
When you’re talking about individual, one-on-one defense, the most obvious examples are always going to be on possessions where the defender forces his man into a tough shot. And Simmons did that to Doncic on numerous occasions.
Watch here in the middle of the second quarter. Simmons does a brilliant job moving his feet around the screen from Boban Marjanovic, cuts off Doncic’s drive and is right there to contest his step-back 3-pointer.
After the halftime break we saw a very similar play and outcome. Simmons navigates the screen, keeps Doncic on the perimeter and forces him into another tough 3, which results in an airball.
Of course, turnovers are also going to be part of the story, and Simmons played a big role in forcing Doncic into coughing the ball up seven times. It was just the 15th time in Doncic’s career that he’s had that many turnovers in a game.
In the second quarter, Simmons again does well to get around a screen, gets some help from his buddy Joel Embiid, and then uses his length to force Doncic to throw a lob pass that gets deflected.
Later on, Doncic largely forgoes the screen and just tries to take Simmons in isolation. No dice. Simmons cuts off both of Doncic’s attempts to get into the paint, and makes him try a tough post entry pass that gets stolen. There just aren’t many players who have the quickness to keep Doncic in front, and the size and length to bother him when he’s forced to pass.
Getting the ball out of Doncic’s hands
While it’s easy to point to the possessions that ended with a Doncic shot or turnover, there’s much more to the game than that. Perhaps Simmons’ biggest achievement in this game was the way he was able to limit Doncic’s involvement by getting the ball out of his hands.
It wasn’t just that Doncic scored 19 points; he only took 13 shots — something he’s done as few as six times since his rookie season — and had a season-low four assists. Simmons didn’t limit Doncic, he largely took him out of the game altogether.
Simmons’ ability to maneuver around screens was a big theme in this game, and it pops up again here. He doesn’t give Doncic any angle to get past him with the dribble, and eventually forces Doncic into an awkward kick-out pass. The possession ends with a Marjanovic push shot that doesn’t go down.
In the second quarter, Doncic tries to go quick without the screen, but Simmons shuts off that drive, so he’s eventually forced to call for the big man. Only it’s no use because Simmons — with some help from Embiid — makes sure that doesn’t work either. Another possession that ends with Marjanovic, another win for the Sixers.
It was the same story in the third quarter. This time Doncic actually does manage to get into the lane, but even after a series of fakes and hesitations, he’s unable to get a shot off and has to give the ball up.
All told, this was a brilliant performance from Simmons, and one that backs up his claims of defensive supremacy. The bad news for the rest of the league is he doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
“I like taking those challenges,” Simmons said. “I said this over and over, again. You know, just tell me who to guard.”