Ben Simmons is on the clock

Published June 2, 2021, 1:00 PMChuck Araneta

With Joel Embiid injured, the pressure is on for Ben Simmons to prove that he can lead the Sixers on the big stage.

In the postgame show right after the Washington Wizards’ Game 4 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, NBA Legend and studio analyst Charles Barkley made an interesting statement. He said that in today’s NBA, you can’t be a bonafide superstar if you can’t shoot or if you’re reluctant to take shots for your team when the game is on the line. 

The narrative revolved around Philly’s All-Star Ben Simmons, who was the best player available on the floor for the Sixers. MVP candidate Joel Embiid went down with a knee injury in the first quarter and did not return to the game.

It’s an interesting statement by Barkley for many reasons. First of all, it takes one superstar to recognize another superstar. Chuck was never the best shooter during his years with Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Houston, but when the game was on the line, he was the one willing to take the last shot, as well as the accountability for the result. So while it seems like Barkley was unfairly criticizing Simmons, there’s always a method to the madness.

It’s all part of the enigma wrapped in the 6’10” elite athlete frame of Ben Simmons. He is a walking oxymoron. He’s quick enough to blow past defenders, yet it happens too often that he just passively waits on the weak side for passes in the dunker spot. He’s one of the best defenders in the league, capable of shutting down any scorer on any given night.

Yet for whatever gains he gives the Sixers on defense, his offense without question can also create all kinds of problems for Philly.

Despite being in the league for three seasons, Simmons is still reluctant to shoot the basketball from anywhere beyond the shaded area.

And of course, there’s the issue on the free throws. Oh, the free throws. Prior to the Hack-a-Ben strategy that the Wizards employed in Game 4, Simmons was 0-for-12 from the charity stripe. He did go a respectable 3-for-6 when the Wizards hunted him down and forced him to take free throws, but it ruined the flow of the Sixers’ offense and helped Washington pull away down the stretch and steal the win.

Now the scene shifts back to Philly for Game 5. News out of the Sixers camp says that Embiid is doubtful for Game 5, which means that they might have to play with a big gaping The Process-sized hole in the middle. In the second half of Game 4, Russell Westbrook was relentless in attacking the paint to find Rui Hachimura for attacks inside, while Bradley Beal was more confident going one-on-one with his defender knowing that there was no help coming.

During the regular season, the Sixers had a win-loss record of 11-12 with Embiid out of the lineup. It’s clear what the Wizards will try to do: use their offense to overwhelm Philadelphia now that Embiid is not going to be there to protect the paint. That puts a lot more pressure on the shoulders of guys like Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Tobias Harris, who need to carry an even heavier load in scoring.

But whatever pressure is put on those role players, it can’t compare to what Simmons will experience come Game 5. All eyes will be on him, as he’s expected to show that he’s capable of leading the Sixers to a win on the big stage. There’s no doubt that he’s one of the best young players in the league today, but for those who keep screaming for more, now’s the opportunity for Simmons to answer the call. 

The Sixers still hold an overwhelming advantage in this series up 3-1. But things have changed drastically with the Embiid injury. The Wizards will gain more hope with each passing quarter, and Simmons is responsible for snuffing out whatever flame will be lit by Washington. 

Sixers coach Doc Rivers said that Simmons is "not a 40-point guy,” but that’s not the expectation from him. What the Sixers will need is his imprint on the game and the ability to make people recall moments of brilliance from him. That hasn’t happened often while he’s been playing in the shadow of Embiid. 

Can Simmons be that kind of leader for one game to help the Sixers advance and get some much needed time for Embiid to heal?