By John Denton Feb. 7, 2018
ORLANDO – When Jonathon Simmons ever-so-briefly became an unrestricted free agent last July one of the many recruiting pitches he received was from superstar forward LeBron James, who wanted the guard to join him on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Of course, Simmons ultimately chose to leave the San Antonio Spurs for the Orlando Magic. On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after his game-winning dunk in Miami and in the midst of what has been a career year for him with the Magic, Simmons gave James a firsthand look at what he missed out on getting this season.
Simmons ignored his sprained right ankle and the 16-point halftime deficit that his Magic faced on Tuesday against Cleveland and went absolutely nuclear in a third-quarter performance. When he poured in 22 points in that third period it paved the way for his career-best 34-point night and the Magic’s stirring 116-98 defeat of James and the reeling Cavs.
For Simmons, the night was all about having a singular focus of helping the Magic (17-36) notch one of their biggest victories of the season. He ignored the pain in his ankle, ignored the horrendous start that left Orlando in a 21-point hole early on and he ignored the fact that Cleveland was desperate for a win.
``Tunnel vision and mostly just the effort of trying to get the win that we did get,’’ Simmons said of his mindset all throughout the best performance of his three-year NBA career. ``It was mostly playing with adrenaline and having the tunnel vision of not seeing what’s on the outside. I was focusing on getting the job done.’’
The work that Simmons did on Tuesday highlighted what was nearly a historic night for the Magic on a variety of levels. Their rally back from 21 points in a win tied for the sixth-largest in franchise history and it allowed them to beat the Cavs in Orlando for the first time since 2012. According to ESPN Stats, it was just the fifth time in the past 20 years of the NBA that a team once down by as much as 21 points rallied to win by at least 18.
Also, Tuesday’s win paired with a victory in Miami a night earlier, gave the Magic their first two-game winning streak since Nov. 10. Orlando will take that modest winning spree into Thursday’s home game against the Atlanta Hawks.
``I think we can all can really feel it now because we’re having fun and enjoying this,’’ said Magic guard Shelvin Mack, whose team has notched wins against Boston, Cleveland, Minnesota, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers over the past three weeks. ``Everybody is up and cheering for their teammates and we’re all benefitting from it.’’
Simmons benefitted from a third quarter that was nearly the greatest in Magic history. His 22-point effort in the third was just three points off the 25 that Hall of Fame guard Tracy McGrady had in a second quarter in March of 2003 while wearing Magic pinstripes. Just being mentioned in the same sentence with McGrady brought a big, toothy smile to Simmons’ face late Tuesday.
``I’ve been watching T-Mac all my life and T-Mac is actually one of my favorite players outside of Kobe (Bryant),’’ said Simmons, who is now averaging 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists a game while shooting 47.3 percent from the floor. ``I watched (McGrady) when he had 13 (points) in 35 seconds live. So, that’s definitely a good conversation to be in.’’
Simmons had just five points in Tuesday’s first half and seemed to lack the explosiveness that he had a night earlier when he dunked with authority with 1:31 left for the winning points in Orlando’s 111-109 defeat of Miami. Just before that dunk, he sprained his ankle and the lingering pain left his playing status very much in doubt most of Tuesday.
However, Simmons left no doubt in a third-quarter performance that will go down as one of the high points of the season for the Magic.
His first basket of the third – a left-handed drive and layup to beat the switching defense of Tristan Thompson – didn’t come until the period was almost four minutes old. Seconds later, he broke up a dribble-hand-off play for J.R. Smith, resulting in another layup.
Then, after James went under a high screen, Simmons showed off his improved shooting touch by burying a 22-foot jumper. Then, Simmons converted a dazzling spinning layup in the lane over Jae Crowder and seconds later connected on two free throws that gave Orlando its first lead of the night.
After James converted a layup to put Cleveland back on top, Simmons made one of the key plays of the night when he showed no fear against the four-time MVP and three-time NBA champion. He drove hard right at James, making him commit a foul to prevent another layup. The key was that it was James’ fourth foul of the night and it knocked him out of the game.
From there, Simmons converted three free throws, a cutting dunk off a feed from Evan Fournier and a layup where he blew past aging Cavs’ forward Jeff Green. Simmons saved his most spectacular moment for the final seconds of the third period when he snatched a rebound over Derrick Rose, dribbled twice and let fly a 26-foot 3-pointer as the horn sounded. When the ball went through the net and the sellout crowd of 18,846 erupted with noise, Simmons was already in a playful crouch because he knew the shot was good as soon as it left his hands.
``From game-time decision to career high,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel raved of Simmons, who triggered a 19-point swing in the third quarter. ``He was terrific. It was one of those things (with the sprained ankle) where once you get into the game the adrenaline takes over and you don’t feel it as much.’’
In Simmons, the Magic saw the same things that James did when he tried recruiting the 6-foot-6, 195-pound guard to Cleveland – a dynamic driver and an aggressive defender who was ready for a bigger role outside of San Antonio. When Simmons declined James’ invitation to join him in Cleveland, he mentioned that he was hungry to be in a starring role and that he was eager to play against stars like James and not just with them.
In Orlando, Simmons started well (16.7 ppg. in October, 12.7 ppg. in November and 15.8 ppg. in December) before hitting a lull in January (10.3 ppg. on 44.1 percent shooting) that came as he tried battling through a back injury and the Magic’s struggles. In 52 games (and 33 starts), he’s already played more minutes than he ever did in two seasons with the Spurs, but he stressed following Tuesday’s dazzling showing that he’s gotten his second wind and is determined to finish this season strong.
``I’m just thankful to my coaches and teammates for putting me in this position and trusting me with the ball in my hands,’’ said Simmons, who has scored at least 14 points in each of his last five games. ``Mentally, it’s just about keeping your focus. I think that’s what happened to me and some of the other guys (in January) with the losing. We sucked it up as a group, our focus is back and we’re trying to do what we have to do for this organization.’’
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