Not too long ago, Jonathon Simmons was contemplating quitting basketball. Today, he’s a hero for the Spurs.
If I told you that Jonathon Simmons outplayed James Harden — the same James Harden who I picked as MVP — in an elimination game, would you believe me? You probably wouldn’t. And that’s okay; I’m not sure I would either. After the San Antonio Spurs had obliterated the Houston Rockets, the box score supports the thesis I opened with. Kawhi Leonard wasn’t playing in Game 6 because of a tweaked ankle, and Gregg Popovich inserted Simmons into the starting lineup.
It was Houston who was facing elimination. Down 3-2, Harden would need to be everything and more for them to force a seventh game. He was not that. In fact, he was everything but. Harden looked out of it — like Popovich had gone into their locker room before tipoff and told him that his dog died. There was no aggression on his part and, after averaging 18.9 shots during the regular season, Harden had just 11 on Thursday. Clint Capela also had 11, and Trevor Ariza had 12. To make matters worse, he got to the free throw line just six times. It only got worse for the Rockets’ superstar. Harden fouled out in 37 minutes, had only 10 points and seven assists, and six turnovers negated his playmaking. The final statistic I’m going to leave you with is his plus/minus, which was minus-28.
Frankly, it was embarrassing to watch.
The Spurs did what they do best: capitalize. From the get-go, San Antonio got whatever they wanted. Houston may not be known for their defense, but this offense, running without Leonard, faced minimal resistance for 48 minutes and shot 53.1 percent from the field. LaMarcus Aldridge came alive and dropped an impressive 34 points and 12 rebounds, but it was Simmons who shocked more than anyone else.
Most people know his story. He went undrafted in 2012 after one year at the University of Houston before spending three years in the D-League. That’s the short of it. Simmons has made a name for himself because he’s an electrifying athlete, but it’s the sheer intensity that he plays with that makes him hard not to like. He plays each possession like it’s his last. For a while, that might’ve been the case, but Simmons has displayed enough to earn a contract once he hits free agency.
At 6-6 and roughly 195, he can matchup with either wing spot and the Spurs strong defense allows him to play balls-to-the-wall defense every time down. Jonathon Simmons may not get many steals or blocks, but Pop must think he’s productive to give him consistent minutes. In the regular season, Simmons averaged 17.8 minutes a night and appeared in 78 contest, including eight starts. As a rookie, he suited up for 55 games (two starts) and saw the court for 14.8 minutes.
The 27-year-old is still seeing his number called in the playoffs. His minutes against the Memphis Grizzlies were sporadic, but, because the Rockets play a faster game, Simmons’ energy was almost a necessity. He played both ends of the floor incredibly well and closed out the final three games with double-digit scoring efforts: 17, 12 and 18, respectively. In fact, Game 3 was the only night Houston held him under 10, but it was also where he played the fewest minutes.
Jonathon Simmons’ eruption on Thursday was a product of the Spurs’ system. That isn’t a bad thing. In San Antonio, Popovich doesn’t care who shoots and who scores. Leonard is the first option, but the unselfishness displayed on a nightly basis means anyone can have an outburst. Simmons and the Spurs took what Houston was giving them. If there was a mismatch, they exploited it, no matter who had it. Ariza had the best chance at slowing down Simmons because both guys are similar body types and Ariza is a damn good defender. However, Mike D’Antoni had him spend time on Aldridge and Pau Gasol in addition to Simmons. That left Eric Gordon to stick the Houston native, and Simmons was a step too quick for him. When it was Ariza, he dumped the ball down to one of his bigs.
Since he played within himself, Simmons’ offensive rating for the series ballooned, and the Spurs averaged 115.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Even though the sample size is small, Popovich looked his way a lot during the six games, so those numbers have weight to them. Furthermore, he continued to play defense at a high level. He boasted a defensive rating of 98, meaning his net rating was 17.3.
Tony Parker averaged 24.3 minutes before getting hurt and had a net rating of 6.0, and this was a revival postseason for him. Simmons also had the best net rating of anyone playing at least 15 minutes a night. No, this doesn’t make him the Spurs’ best player. It’s possible it’s a fluke, and we’ll have to wait and see if he continues it, but these last six games showed me that Simmons is a game-changer when he plays to his strengths. As of now, those are limited, but the Golden State Warriors play a similar style to Houston which means Simmons has the chance to play the same way.
The Warriors also have the players to matchup against Simmons. That’ll go one of two ways. In the season-opener, Simmons dropped a 20-piece in San Antonio’s 29-point shellacking after going 8-of-14 from the field. The second meeting, also a Spurs win, he was a non-factor and got just six shots up. He connected on three, totaling six points. Those two were Simmons’ shining moments because he played jus 52 seconds in the third and final game between the two.
San Antonio and Golden State meeting for a Finals bid is a dream come true, and even the wildest dreams likely don’t have Jonathon Simmons being a difference-maker.
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