Simmons' Destination Worth The Wait
By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com
Four years ago, Jonathon Simmons was taking one more shot at playing professional basketball through an open tryout with the D-League’s Austin Spurs.
On Tuesday, he was matched up against James Harden in overtime of an NBA playoff game.
After Simmons helped the Spurs win 110-107 and take a 3-2 series lead over Houston, he was asked if he had been waiting for this moment all season.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” he said. “Not just the season. It’s crazy, watching it for years and actually being in the intensity.”
The game was tied in the final seconds of regulation when Harden stood 30 feet from the rim and stared Simmons down. Simmons was clinging to him as Harden faked left twice, then made his move. Simmons stayed in front of Harden the whole way, drawing an offensive foul with 11 seconds to go.
Simmons scored 12 points, but the stats that stand out are that he drew two charges and had three steals, including two in overtime. Harden, the NBA’s second-leading scorer in the regular season, was held scoreless in overtime and finished with 33 points.
The Spurs were without Tony Parker for the rest of the playoffs with a quad injury and had Kawhi Leonard on the bench with an ankle injury he suffered late in the fourth quarter. They stuck with a lineup of LaMarcus Aldridge, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Patty Mills and Simmons throughout the overtime.
The Spurs held the Rockets to six points in overtime, getting three steals and finding a way in the last 30 seconds.
Mills forced a jump ball with nine seconds left, setting up a final play and Ginobili’s block on Harden at the buzzer.
“Guys just battled, came together and made plays,” Aldridge said.
Aldridge is in his 11th season and Ginobili in his 15th. Then there were three players on the floor in Green, Mills, and Simmons who spent time in the D-League.
Green spent time playing professional basketball in Slovenia and Mills in China during the 2011 NBA lockout.
On Tuesday, the five of them were up against the Rockets, who put together one of the greatest statistical offensive seasons in NBA history in 2016-17.
Simmons grew up in Houston, 15 miles away from the Toyota Center. He went undrafted in 2012 and played a season of semi-pro ball in a Houston suburb. Choosing to stay close to his children at home rather than play overseas, Simmons took a shot at the D-League. Making the Austin roster through the open tryout, he spent two seasons there before signing with the San Antonio Spurs for 2015-16. The work never stopped from there.
“Jon, as you know, he’s very athletic and he’s learning every day,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “In some ways, he’s a neophyte even though he’s a little bit older…he’s somebody that’s important to us because he can go downhill. He can get by people and make some things happen.”
Simmons’ 32 minutes on Tuesday were a playoff career-high, and more minutes than the 26 he had in the entire 2016 playoffs.
He coined the term the “Juice Unit” to describe the Spurs bench, and Simmons has often drawn attention for rising up with electrifying dunks. In the playoffs, it was locking down with tough defense that earned him praise from teammates.
“Jonathon was amazing today,” Ginobili said. “His defense, he was very energetic. He made a huge play to send the game to overtime, and now they have to worry about him because he’s a great one-on-one player who can finish at the rim. He’s very athletic and it provides us with a big boost.”
Danny Green added, “Jon’s been waiting for this opportunity to come in and make an impact. Defensively he’s come a long way. He did a great job guarding Harden without fouling him, without pressuring him and making him go around, drawing an offensive foul which was huge for us.”
In the AT&T Center stands, LaTonya Simmons watched with anxiety at first, and then delight after her son and the Spurs were victorious.
A single mother to Jonathon and his three siblings, LaTonya watched her son grind away for years before becoming a 26-year-old NBA rookie. At one point, LaTonya told Jonathon that he should consider giving up basketball to become a barber to support his family. Jonathon stuck to sports, and the payoff has arrived.
“I can’t even explain what this means, to see him on that floor against James Harden,” LaTonya Simmons said. “I don’t have the words. All those years, all those things I saw him go through and all the hard work it took, and there he is in crunch time. I’m sure I’m the proudest mom in the world right now.”