PHILADELPHIA — This is what Jacque Vaughn means when he says Ben Simmons needs to play an entire game with force.
Not just intermittent spurts of aggression when he so chooses.
Did Simmons box out? Did he play with physicality? Did he deliver the first hit, or did the opponent hit him first? Did he run the floor with force? Did he try to get to the paint?
In the first half of Brooklyn’s 137-133 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, the answer was no: Simmons took and missed just one shot and looked uninterested in scoring through the first two periods.
In the third quarter, however, the answer was a resounding yes: Simmons scored 10 points in the period, punctuated by a coast-to-coast and-one layup leaving just 0.7 seconds left on the clock entering the fourth quarter.
It became clear there were two different players who wore No. 10 for the Nets on Wednesday night. The one who played the first half contributed to Brooklyn’s 17-point deficit. The one who played the third quarter helped erase the 76ers’ lead.
On a Nets team with championship aspirations, Simmons is one of the biggest variables. He’s an all-world defender and an elite point guard with the size, strength and IQ to play all five positions.
If he chooses to be aggressive like he did in the third quarter against the team that threw him under the bus and traded him for James Harden, the Nets — especially in a world where Kevin Durant (MCL sprain) is healthy — look like world beaters .
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If he is reluctant to score in his opportunities to do so, he can end up on the bench, where Vaughn placed him for the game’s final nine minutes in favor of a lineup that provided more spacing and scoring to help erase a late-game deficit .
“He just made a choice to put his head down and be aggressive for our team [in the third quarter],” Kyrie Irving said of Simmons. “When he’s aggressive like that, being Ben Simmons, then we look very, very good and it gives us opportunities that sometimes we don’t get if he’s not.”
The message for Vaughn to Simmons through the media has been constant: He needs to play with more force, not just for a quarter but for an entire game. Vaughn wants Simmons to “value” and “play hard” every possession. Just because he played in the first half doesn’t mean he’s going to be part of the closing lineup, even if he had a revelatory third quarter.
“We really want to get to a point where your teammate is depending on you, depending on you to do your job every single night, every single possession,” Vaughn said. “Ben showed more ability to play with force in the second half, which paid off, which is what we need, which was great for our team.”
Simmons said the difference between the first half and third quarter was simply understanding the team needed him to score. After a listless first half where Simmons ostensibly never looked to score, a switch flipped for Brooklyn’s third highest-paid player.
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Simmons decided to hunt his own shot. First a turnaround hook shot over PJ Tucker. Then another attempt over Tucker that he left short. Then a pair of free throws when he was fouled on a layup attempt. Followed by a layup under the rim, and then an uncontested alley-oop finish.
“Just attacking until they stopped me, pushing the tempo, realizing we need some easy buckets,” Simmons said. “[In the first half, I was] trying to find my guys way too much. …Each game is gonna be different; we don’t have Kevin, so that was one of the major factors.”
Simmons said he didn’t want to come out of the game when Vaughn subbed him out for Joe Harris at the 8:58 mark in the fourth quarter. When Harris fouled out with just under six minutes left in the period, Vaughn continued to sit Simmons, subbed in Royce O’Neale and kept Yuta Watanabe in the game.
“It is what it is,” Simmons said. “That’s coach’s decision. I can’t really control that. Obviously for myself, I want to be out there.
“I really ain’t had no message from him, but I think it’s more so just whatever the team needs to win. If we’re winning I have no problem with it; but if we’re losing then I’ve got an issue with it.”
Irving says the key to unlocking the best version of Simmons is to continue holding him accountable while also keeping confidence in his abilities.
“That’s what we do every single day. We don’t want to duck anything when it comes to us building camaraderie,” Irving said. “When I say duck, it just means sometimes confrontation’s good, meaning what happens in the locker room or happens out on the court. Sometimes you guys see it, sometimes you don’t. Encouragement could look many different ways. We just want to continue to hammer home that our best team effort is when we’re all playing well and staying aggressive and just taking shots that the defense is giving us.
“So simple ingredients for this basketball game, don’t want to complicate it, but in terms of Ben, we just want him to continue to be aggressive and when he figures it out, he figures it out. When it clicks for him, it’s gonna click, and we’re gonna look even better. I’m seeing flashes, I think we’re all seeing flashes. We just want him to keep it up, keep up the good work.”
Vaughn added for Simmons, the change starts in the mind.
“You become what you think about. So if you’re thinking about being aggressive, you will be aggressive,” he said. “If you think about being a good teammate, you’ll be a good teammate. If you think about competing and playing hard, you do those things. You become what you think about.”