BOSTON – Midway through the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown could have stuck with T.J. McConnell at point guard.
If winning this particular game was his first priority, that's what Brown should have done. McConnell – the Sixers' undrafted, 6-foot-2 back-up – was having one of the best games of his life on the biggest stage he's ever played, registering eight points and five assists (with no turnovers) in 17 minutes. He was a pest defensively, picking up a pair of steals. He was aggressive on offense, taking Aron Baynes off the dribble for a big bucket early in the fourth.
He's had a hell of a year. I think he's the Rookie of the Year. I think he's going to have to learn how to play in these environments."
"McConnell was ridiculous," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said afterward. "He was a big reason why that game ebbed back towards them."
Indeed, in a game that the Sixers led by 22 in the second quarter and trailed by eight late in the third, McConnell was a well-earned plus-16.
After the Celtics called timeout with 6:59 left in the game, with the Sixers up three, Brown had McConnell back on the floor. But as soon as Boston inbounded the ball, Sixers rookie Ben Simmons was on his way to the scorer's table to check back into the game. And when there was no dead ball over the next seven possessions, Brown called timeout so he could sub Simmons for McConnell and Joel Embiid for Ersan Ilyasova.
At that point, the Sixers were up two, but had been outscored by 16 points with Simmons on the floor. The Kia Rookie of the Year favorite had taken just two shots, unable to do any damage against a Celtics defense that had kept him from getting to the basket.
McConnell was the better player on this night and the better option to play down the stretch. But Brown was playing the long game and this was a learning experience for one of his young stars.
"It's a tough decision, I admit it," the coach said about taking McConnell out in favor of Simmons in the fourth. "This whole playoff experience is something that I want our young guys and our star players to learn from and grow. The decision – do you go with T.J. still or do you come back to Ben Simmons? – I'm coming back to Ben Simmons. I'm coming back to Ben. He's had a hell of a year. I think he's the Rookie of the Year. I think he's going to have to learn how to play in these environments."
The decision may have cost the Sixers the game. Simmons missed another two shots down the stretch as Boston outscored the Sixers 17-10 after the point he checked back in. It was another display of the Celtics' resilience and a 108-103 victory that gave them a 2-0 series lead.
It was also the worst game of Simmons' postseason career. He finished with one point and seven assists, shooting 0-for-4 from the field and committing a game-high five turnovers. He was a minus-23 in a game his team lost by five points.
"I'm going to have bad games," Simmons said afterward. "It happens. Obviously, it's not the perfect timing."
He's still a rookie, but this is the rookie who averaged a triple-double as his team went 20-1 over the last 16 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. There were no bad games in that first round series against the Miami Heat, who, according to Simmons, were more physical than these Celtics.
"Physically," Simmons said, "the Heat were on another level."
Physical or not, the Celtics are the better defensive team. They've been able to get back in transition and wall off the paint. If they're not more physical than the Heat, they're bigger. In this series, Simmons' primary defenders have been 6-10 Al Horford and 6-9 Marcus Morris, both bigger than any Heat player who defended Simmons for more than 15 possessions in the first round.
I think, mentally, I was thinking too much, over-thinking the plays. I wasn't just out there, flowing, playing the way that I play, which is free."
"He's really hard to guard with a smaller player," Stevens said, "because he's so big and strong and shifty. We're fortunate to have a bunch of bodies to be able to kind of rotate guys."
Against Simmons -- who has scored a grand total of 64 points (on 25 percent shooting) from outside the paint in 88 games this season -- there's a clear game plan: stay in front of him and contest his drives as best you can. The Celtics have executed that game plan about as well as any team could have, and Simmons' inability to shoot from the perimeter has been a clear factor in the 2-0 hole in which Sixers find themselves.
"[The Celtics] are elite guarding their own men," Brown said. "There's a physicality and switch-ability that they got apples for apples on many, many different matchups."
Boston gave Simmons nothing in transition on Thursday, and then Simmons gave his team nothing in their half-court offense. Boston dared him to shoot and he didn't take the bait. But he also couldn't get position for the post-ups and duck-ins that he's been able to take advantage of all season long. He looked tentative.
"I think it was mainly what I did to myself," Simmons said, not giving the opponent much credit. "I think, mentally, I was thinking too much, over-thinking the plays. I wasn't just out there, flowing, playing the way that I play, which is free. I think, obviously, I know what their game plan is. I've got to play my game."
He'll have that opportunity back at home on Saturday and Monday. And even if Games 3 and 4 aren't his best, they'll be two more experiences from which to learn and grow.
T.J. McConnell was the better player in Game 2, but Ben Simmons is the franchise cornerstone. And even with a playoff game on the line, Brett Brown had his eyes on the future.
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