TORONTO (Reuters) - Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons may not have lit up the scoreboard as he would have liked but the towering Aussie did get some measure of revenge on Toronto Raptors defensive supremo Kawhi Leonard on Monday.
Simmons, who dazzles with his playmaking and open-floor scoring, was ineffective on offense but contained Leonard in the first half to set the tone in a 94-89 Sixers victory that tied the NBA’s Eastern Conference semi-final at one game apiece.
“As far as Kawhi’s brilliance, he’s really, really good we all get that,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown told reporters.
“But having to scout and gameplan and then it’s happening 20 feet from you it’s exacerbated, it’s magnified and I think Ben did a really good job on him.”
Simmons, the NBA’s reigning rookie of the year, often blows by defenders and scores baskets with authority but doing that against someone like Leonard, a two-time defensive player of the year, has proven to be a different story in his young career.
With Leonard as his primary defender in Game Two, Simmons managed just six points and committed four turnovers, but his defensive work on the Raptors forward during the opening two quarters proved critical in his team’s victory.
Leonard scored just 15 of his game-high 35 points in the first half as the Sixers built a 13-point lead at the break.
“We kind of changed the gameplan a little bit,” said Sixers forward Joel Embiid. “Obviously Kawhi is a great player so you just go to make it tough on him but we did a better job than in Game One.”
Simmons’ struggles when going up against Leonard, a former NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, are nothing new and the topic has been dissected ever since the Sixers secured their spot in the second round of the playoffs.
After losing the opening game of the series, a contest in which Leonard scored a career playoff-high 45 points, Simmons simply said his team needed to get better, watch film and fix their mistakes.
One of the key adjustments by the Sixers was having Simmons guard Leonard more, especially since the 22-year-old Australian did the best job of any of his teammates in that department in the series opener.
Leonard, acquired by Toronto last July in a blockbuster trade with San Antonio, is well established as one of the NBA’s best-two-way players who can often rattle an opponent no matter who he is up against.
And while there is no way to completely shut down a player of Leonard’s caliber, Simmons did well to make him uncomfortable and get him out of his comfort zone, until the latter stages of the game when Leonard made things interesting.
“Great players make shots, tough shots at that,” said Sixers guard Jimmy Butler. “We just go to go down, lock in on our end of the court and not turn the ball over and continue to just contest him, and I think we did a great job of it.”
The series now shifts to Philadelphia for Game Three on Thursday and Game Four on Sunday.
Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty