For good reason, the Nets have focused heavily on trying to find ways to control 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid and to respond to his bullying with physical defense and rebounding. But the player who hurt them most in their Game 2 loss on Monday was 6-10 point guard Ben Simmons.
Not only did he have a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, but also he played very tough defense against Nets All-Star D’Angelo Russell, who was scoreless in Philadelphia’s 51-point third quarter. The challenge the Nets face going into Game 3 Thursday night at Barclays Center is finding a way to slow down Simmons while also freeing up Russell, who is the focal point of their offense.
After practice on Wednesday, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson admitted he might have to go to more lineups where Russell is paired with either or both of Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert so that Russell is not the lone ballhandler the 76ers must stop. “I think we have things we can do,” Atkinson said. “It first starts with D’Lo. It’s work a little harder to get open, get out in transition a little more before the defense can set. That’s No. 1.
“We obviously can help him by screening better. I don’t think we screened well for him. Guys were being denied and harassed. I think part of that is, yeah, throw a second ballhandler out there, third ballhandler. I think that can help, too. Our paced offense has to be better so we can free him up earlier.”
Atkinson said those same measures also can help free up leading NBA three-point shooter Joe Harris, who had only four shot attempts and scored just four points in Game 2 while being chased hard to get him off the three-point line and prevent open looks.
Another factor that led to a big game by Simmons is that veteran backup power forward Jared Dudley sat out Game 2 with tightness in his right calf. It was a precautionary measure to make sure the injury didn’t grow worse. But he practiced fully on Wednesday and said he expects to play in Game 3. Rookie forward Rodions Kurucs will start out on Simmons, but Dudley’s experience will be invaluable.
“I think that Ben Simmons is a great player in transition,” Dudley said. “Once you slow him up in the half-court, I think he’s average. He’s a player that, when he picks up speed, he’s a load. So, you’ve got to have two guys with him. For him, it’s taking away his easy baskets. It’s his speed that dictates to get other guys going. If you’re in a bad way, foul him and make him make free throws. If he’s 4-for-4, keep fouling him. The odds tell you what his percentages are for free throws.”
Dudley said it’s inevitable Simmons is going to have good games, but when that happens, it’s important to make sure the Nets contain at least two of the Sixers’ other stars, Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. It’s equally important for the Nets to free Russell from the clutches of Simmons’ defense to get their own offense going.
“Screens are crucial,” Dudley said. "When I guard [Simmons], a lot of times, he tries to get through a screen, and I hold him. Like, ‘You’re not going to get back to D’Lo.’ The screens have to be better, the physicality has to be better. We’ve got to come with the mindset to physically match them because they’re a real physical team. No. 2 is offensively, now let’s get our guys going a little bit better.”
Dudley said he will be “close to 100 percent” by game time, and he added, “I expect to play a lot in Game 3.”