Ben Simmons scored as many points against the Boston Celtics on Thursday night as he played minutes for the Nets late in the fourth quarter.
Simmons’ 0-of-3 donut of a shooting night in Brooklyn’s 109-98 loss to Boston underscored what was one of his most impactful games of a season that immediately followed offseason back surgery.
He tallied an impressive 13 assists, often grabbing a rebound and pushing the pace before finding a shooter in transition.
Yet his inability to score the basketball plagued a Nets team desperate for points with Kevin Durant projected to miss a month with a sprained MCL.
And oftentimes, he barely looked at the rim.
”Just pushing the ball and finding my guys [but] probably trying to do that too much,” Simmons said about his first official donut of the NBA season. He previously tallied zero points in a Nov. 28 matchup against the Orlando Magic, but he left that game 11 minutes in with a calf strain. “I need to get my own [shots] and get myself going.”
Simmons said he needs to be more “assertive and aggressive” knowing the Nets need him to score more with Durant’s 30 points per game on the shelf for a month. He said he doesn’t feel pressure to score more with Durant out of the lineup, but also acknowledged it’s a necessity.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure. I think it’s something I need to do to help the team,” he said. “I’m also looking at 13 assists. They [Boston] had too many second chances and rebounds. There are a lot of things in this game we can cut down.”
Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said before the game the team doesn’t need Simmons to score for him to make an impact in other areas of the game. Simmons facilitated for Brooklyn’s platoon of three-point shooters and played tough defense on Celtics’ star Jayson Tatum, helping hold him to just 20 points on 7-of-22 shooting from the field.
Vaughn, however, subbed Simmons out of the game with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter and stayed with Seth Curry and T.J. Warren for the remainder of the game. His end-of-the-game substitution pattern suggests the opposite of what he says, that a team desperate for scoring with Durant out indeed needs Simmons to put pressure on the rim if he’s going to be part of the team’s closing rotation in tight games.
“I look at it as more than the scoring piece,” Vaughn said postgame. “My thing is going to be on the defensive end with Ben. The impact that he has to have without Kevin being on the floor.
“Ben’s got to protect the rim, Ben’s got to be able to be a force for us on the defensive end of the floor so that we can play small, play three guards out there so we can have shooting around him.”
Aside from the scoring, there were a number of passes that went awry for Simmons, whose confusing fourth quarter pressed the undo button on three opening periods that went better than the team could have hoped.
Simmons had full command of the offense when he tallied eight assists in the opening period. On the final possession of the first quarter, for example, he faked calling a play while bringing the ball up the floor before rifling a pass to Joe Harris, who was trailing on the play for a transition three.
Many of those passes didn’t reach the destination, however, in the fourth quarter. Simmons wanted to be aggressive seeking his shot but ended up passing out of layup attempts — to teammates who thought he was shooting.
On one possession, Simmons drove to the rim as if he was going to attack, then whipped a pass to the corner — where Yuta Watanabe had just left to crash the boards thinking Simmons was going to shoot. On another possession, he made a similar play, passing out of a layup attempt to find Nic Claxton, who — like Watanabe — assumed Simmons was going to shoot and wasn’t ready for the pass.
“There was [another turnover on] a back door [cut] to Joe,” Simmons said postgame. “He kind of hesitated, but that’s also learning. I don’t think we had two back doors all season to Joe. So just chemistry and knowing where I’m going to throw the ball.”
Simmons said the key to unlocking his potential as a scorer at the rim is dumbing down the playmaking, even though it’s been his calling card in Brooklyn.
”I think I’m giving the ball up way too many times when I know who I am, I know I need to get to the rim and get buckets,” he said. “And that’s also going to help my teammates and get them going.”
Kyrie Irving agreed.
”He’s just gotta be himself. We’re not gonna put too much pressure on him,” Irving said. “We’re not gonna let this one particular game or any other games where he scored eight points, four points, it doesn’t matter. It’s all on us as a team to collectively put points on the board, and when he gets his opportunities, we just want him to be aggressive.”