ORLANDO – Jonathon Simmons had just wrapped up an otherwise brilliant two-way game, scoring a team-high 19 points while holding superstar Russell Westbrook to the fewest points he had ever scored against the Orlando Magic, when the veteran guard was once again forced to stomach the bitterness of losing.
It’s mostly a new taste for Simmons – previously a member of the uber-successful San Antonio Spurs – and one he never wants to get used to swallowing. Monday’s 112-105 loss in Oklahoma City dropped the Magic to 18-42 and saddled them with an unsightly six-game losing streak.
In his previous two NBA seasons, Simmons had been a part of 67- and 61-win teams with the Spurs, so understandably Orlando’s lack of success has done quite a number on his psyche. Known for his toughness and grit on the court, Simmons has had to adopt a similar mindset off the court in an effort to keep his spirits and his play high.
``Well, I’m human, so I’m going through things obviously that I’ve never gone through before,’’ Simmons said candidly. ``But I have a lot of respect for these guys in this (Magic) locker room and I know it’s a working process with this team and this organization. So, I’m just trying to stay confident and keep these guys lifted up.’’
Simmons certainly did his best to do that on Monday, limiting Westbrook to just eight points – his only single-digit scoring night ever in 19 career games against Orlando. In his last five games against the Magic over the previous 2½ seasons, Westbrook had torched Orlando for 41.4 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.8 assists. In those five games, the reigning MVP had racked up three triple-doubles and scoring nights of 57, 48, 41, 37 and 24 points. Against Simmons, who has a long history of guarding Westbrook from their time playing one another in San Antonio and OKC, the Thunder star made just three of 12 shots and got to the free throw line just twice.
``Just play defense and be solid,’’ Simmons said rather matter-of-factly. ``It’s Russell Westbrook, the reigning MVP, so obviously you want to go out and give him a challenge. I’ve guarded him many times before, so it’s just about being smart and making him make tough plays. You’ve got to match his energy.’’
Simmons, whose Magic face the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night at the Amway Center, was plenty energetic on Monday with 19 points, five rebounds, four steals, two assists and a block. He was so efficient that the Magic were a plus-five in his nearly 36 minutes on the floor, while the Thunder were a minus-five with Westbrook in 35 minutes.
Considering that the Magic have long since been out of the playoff chase, Simmons has had every reason to let his play sag of late. But, clearly, he is enjoying his expanded role with the Magic and the freedom that head coach Frank Vogel has given him. Those two factors, combined with a significant pay raise, of course, played major roles in Simmons leaving the success and security of San Antonio for Orlando’s rebuilding efforts.
In 59 games (40 starts), Simmons has more than doubled his career scoring average coming into the season (6.1 ppg.) by producing 13.8 points per game. He’s also giving the Magic 3.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists a night while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor and 32.1 percent from 3-point range.
Much like in Monday’s loss, Simmons has had to temper most of his individual success this season because of the Magic’s struggles. He said a player’s true toughness often comes in how they respond to adversity and he’d like to think he’s stayed strong even when things have been bleak.
``This stuff is mostly mental,’’ Simmons stressed. ``People on the outside (of the team) can’t really see it because they’re fans. There are very few people who can mentally dial in with what’s actually going on in the locker room. So, I just try to keep my focus right here and not really talk to people about basketball. Hear what they have to say, but I’m old enough now and I’ve been around basketball for a long time to know that this is something that we’ve got to fix among ourselves.’’
Even though Orlando is simply playing out the string of 22 games that remain, Simmons said the team can still learn some valuable lessons that can be used going forward. Simmons, someone who made it to the NBA by virtue of paying $150 for a G League tryout, thinks of himself as a fighter and he said the Magic as a whole have to learn to better fight through adversity. Orlando held a 77-75 lead on Monday only to see Oklahoma City score the final nine points over the final two minutes of the third quarter.
Orlando would never lead again – something that infuriated Simmons even though he had played one of his finest all-around games of the season.
``It’s just about being smarter, being a lot more consistent and having perseverance,’’ said Simmons, who will be matched up against Toronto all-star guard DeMar DeRozan on Wednesday night. ``When teams hit us, we have to hit back. That’s been the theme this year – teams have hit us and we haven’t hit back. So, we’ve got to get a little more fire up under us and I think we’ll get things worked out.’’
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