Philadelphia coach Brett Brown has slammed critics of Australian all-star Ben Simmons as the Sixers face up to the challenge of beating the veteran Toronto Raptors in the NBA playoffs.
Brown spoke up for Simmons and for fellow Australian Jonah Bolden during a media conference call ahead of the all-important game five of their Eastern conference semi-final series in Toronto on Wednesday (AEST).
The best-of-seven series is tied 2-2, meaning a Sixers win would give them the chance to clinch the series at home in game six.
Simmons has been in the firing line from some critics for his performance during this series despite facing the daunting task of guarding Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard, who dominated Toronto’s game four victory with 39 points.
Simmons’ return of 10 points, five rebounds and four assists was depicted as not being good enough as some critics questioned why he wasn’t shooting more and whether he was avoiding taking free throws after missing his first two attempts.
Sixers star guard Jimmy Butler said after the game he was constantly reminding Simmons and fellow young star Joel Embiid to keep taking their shots no matter what was happening in the game.
Brown believes Simmons, at just 22 years old, is dealing with the pressure and momentum swings of this series far better than many would his age.
“The growth of Ben this year from a coaching prospective has been significant,” Brown said.
“His work ethic, putting in extra time, his attention to detail on knowing your opponent and his growth as a leader and our point guard has been significant.
“At 22 years old, I think at times none of us should be as critical or harsh with him.
“His belief that he can be an elite defensive player, the studied approach that that requires has improved tremendously. If you look at our team and who is the best defensive player on the ball, he has sort of emerged to be that guy.
“Staying in the moment and not getting too excited or too sad about his personal result or our team’s result and trying to stay level on an emotional big stage – I think he has handled that beyond his years.”
Brown also stood up for Simmons’ shot-making decisions during the series.
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“With Ben’s length and ability to get to the rim, we encourage Ben all day, every day [to attack the rim] as it is where he can stamp his thumbprint on the game,” Brown said.
“It’s difficult in playoffs, those opportunities, as good as Ben is, are not as frequent as you wish.
“There were a few times where he could have gone a step further or tried to draw contact with a strong finish or a dunk but I don’t think it’s anything that is bothersome.
“I do feel like the green light in this environment is something he always knows he has and I hope he continues to be as aggressive as we’ve seen for the large majority of the year.”
While Simmons is in the spotlight, Bolden’s role has diminished in the post-season.
Brown explained that he used Bolden more in the previous series against the Brooklyn Nets, but was going with a more “traditional” line-up with a big centre instead of using Bolden to stretch the defence.
“This series we’ve opted to go with more of a traditional centre where as in the Brooklyn series we threw him a bit of a lifeline,” Brown said.
“He still is always on my mind and for his first season in the NBA and his first experience in playoff basketball – I believe he is ready to go if called upon.
“Most importantly I think his future is extremely bright.”
When asked whether Simmons was trying to avoid taking free throws, Brown stood tall with his star player.
“I don’t connect those dots to a lack of confidence, trepidation, to go back to the free throw line,” Brown said.
“There is no hesitance. The thing that disappoints me is that me knowing what I know, the volume of time that he has put in trying to improve his free throws pre-practice, post-practice and on days off hasn’t translated to that sort of 70-75 per cent [free throw percentage] that has been his goal.
“In relation to him moving and cutting, there are times we can exploit a mismatch then perhaps we can find him more in the paint.”