We’ve all heard the adage of playoff basketball being something of an entirely different sport than regular season basketball. Teams are more adept to adjust against a side they know they will lock in on for two weeks, rather than a random Wednesday night game.
The game slows down, and half-court offence becomes increasingly prevalent over scoring in transition.
Game to game adjustments become a necessity, rather than coasting along for a month of regular season ball. There is a litany of examples where players who are better suited to 82 games instead of 16 high intensity games, and vice-versa. That doesn’t mean they are bad players. Far from it. What it does mean however, is that come playoff time, their deficiencies become glaringly pronounced and their shortcomings rear its ugly head.
Gobert and Simmons continue to struggle
This year the two prime examples of this are Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons. The two all-star calibre players finished in the top three voting for Defensive Player of the Year, with Gobert coming out on top to win the award for the third time.
Gobert had been a defensive monster in the regular season. The best rim protector in the league, the Frenchman anchored the Jazz to the third best defensive rating in the regular season (107.5) and the highest net rating (9.0). His impact was so overwhelming that media members were including the Stifel Tower in MVP discussions and had the Utah Jazz potentially making the finals.
Everything was aligned for the franchise to win its first ever NBA championship. They were the only team to have 100% capacity in their arena for playoff basketball and given the notoriously raucous crowd in Salt Lake, it was a definitive advantage.
The Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns, MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets were out, the Clippers were teetering. The Utah Jazz came into the postseason with the best record in the NBA and handily dispatched of the Memphis Grizzlies in 5 games in the first round. Things were looking great for them.
That was until Rudy Gobert got exposed.
The second round series vs the Los Angeles Clippers was a striking example of why playoff basketball is completely different from regular season basketball. It is not a as black and white to say that Rudy Gobert is a complete non-factor in the playoffs. He still holds significant value for Utah. In the game 2 win for the Jazz their defensive rating with Rudy Gobert on the floor was 97.3, off the floor it was 169.6.
It is what happened since going up 2-0 where Gobert and Utah weltered. The Clippers took the next two games to even up the series. With the news that Kawhi Leonard was battling with a knee injury and will miss the remainder of the series, the Jazz remained favourites to advance.
Hunter becomes the hunted
Per Justin Russo of the Clip & Roll podcast, the Clippers had a 125.0 offensive rating with Rudy Gobert on the floor in game 5. They shot 63.6% inside the paint with Gobert in the game and 38.2% on three-pointers.
Shooting well above 50% on Gobert in the paint is just inexcusable for the 3-time defensive player of the year. Game 6 was Rudy Gobert’s red wedding. He was hunted consistently by the Clippers small-ball line up that included Pat Beverley (of all people) knocking down shots from behind the arc.
Not only was Gobert a -22 in game 6, the Clippers made 79% of their shots when Rudy was the closest/primary defender. For an All-NBA player to be targeted like that much pose serious questions to Utah’s front office about the effectiveness of Gobert in the playoffs.
The Ben Simmons conundrum
If I had £1 for every discussion about Ben Simmons’ refusal to shoot, I’d be rich (but would very much welcome discussions about Simmons’ shooting for financial gain).
Simmons is a fantastic player, an elite defender and can score in transition at will. That all becomes moot when talking about what he can’t do. Ben can’t shoot. He won’t shoot. He has not shown a desire to work on his shot, nor does he welcome any conversation to do with his shot.
In the regular season, Simmons running downhill and getting to the rim is a frequent occurrence. However, in the playoffs It becomes a different story. in the series vs the Atlanta Hawks, Simmons’ points log is as followed:
- Game 1: 17pts
- Game 2: 4pts
- Game 3: 18pts
- Game 4: 11pts
- Game 5: 8 pts
- Game 6: 6pts
Ben Simmons is a puzzle no one can quite figure out. Despite failing to score double digits in half of the games this series, he has registered a positive +/- in four of the six games. His defensive impact is frightening. Unlike Gobert, who is more of a stationary defender, Simmons’ ability to switch one through five makes him a nightmare matchup for any player. He is physical enough to bang down low against centres on the block, whilst showing the agility and lateral movement to chase guards on the perimeter.
In game 2 against the Hawks, Simmons was the primary defender for Trae Young. Young shot 37% from the floor and was 1 of 7 from three-point range. Simmons was a monster defensively that game even though he only totalled 4pts. Fast-forward now to game 5 and Ben Simmons was inadequacies were on full display. The Sixers blew a 28-point lead, were outscored 40 to 19 in the 4th quarter, and only saw Joel Embiid and Seth Curry score a basket in he entire second half.
Ben Simmons is afraid of going to the line. It’s as simple as that.
He defers from going to the rim to avoid being fouled and shooting free throws. He is shooting stares at notes to make sure the numbers are true 32% from the line this series.
When asked if taking out Simmons out in the fourth is something he would consider, head coach Doc Rivers left the door open for this eventuality. In a tight game Atlanta know that they can intentionally foul Simmons, send him to the line, and watch him miss one of two free throws. The highest FT% he has shot this series is 50%. In game 5 Simmons shot 4 of 14 from the line as the Hawks baited him into shooting FTs.
Embiid-Simmons era coming to an end?
This feels like last chance saloon for the Embiid-Simmons tandem.
An inexcusable playoff elimination to the fifth seed Atlanta Hawks will cause President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey to make changes to the roster.
Embiid will stay, there’s no doubting that.
Simmons however is their most valuable trade asset and might find himself on a different team if Philly lose this series. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Ben Simmons is on full show. The time for him to show up and show out in a game 7 in Philly is upon him and the entire organisation.