It’s been a rough 48 hours in the life of 76ers All-Star Ben Simmons, who couldn’t buy a bucket in Wednesday night’s stunning, Game 5 collapse against Atlanta, leaving the Sixers, owners of the Eastern Conference’s best record during the regular season, on the brink of elimination. The 24-year-old has been ripped to shreds by fans and media members alike, and rightfully so after bricking 10 of his 14 free-throw tries (“Hack-a-Ben” began as early as the second quarter), allowing the Hawks to claw back from 26 down to steal a 109-106 victory on Philly’s home floor.
Simmons, for all his physical gifts, has developed a frustrating knack for shrinking in big moments, none bigger than his Game 5 clunker at Wells Fargo when the 6’11” point guard inexplicably attempted just four shots in 38 minutes of court time. The loss was one of the most frustrating in recent memory for the Sixers, who squandered gutsy performances from both Joel Embiid (who netted 37 points while playing through a torn meniscus) and the less-heralded Curry brother, Seth (36 points on smooth 13-of-19 shooting including 7-of-12 from deep).
Clearly Simmons, an elite defender with rare length for a ball-handler, has encountered a mental block of sorts, unable to quell his demons at the line. The free-throw bug has certainly been going around this postseason, infecting Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo (who infuriated James Harden with his monotonous free-throw routine Thursday night) and Luka Doncic, among other big-name talents. Many have been unsympathetic towards Simmons (his exorbitant $30.56-million salary could have something to do with that), though teammates, including veteran big man Dwight Howard still have his back.
“Leave [Simmons] alone. Send him some positivity instead of talking about how bad you think he is. Ain’t none of you played in the NBA,” scolded Howard during a livestream on Instagram Friday morning. “I don’t care how many free-throws you miss. I still believe in you. Keep saying what you want about my teammate. You’re my doggone brother.”
If anyone can relate to Simmons’ struggles at the line it’s Howard, a lifetime 56.6-percent free-throw shooter who was subject to his own “Hack-a-Dwight” phenomenon early in his career with the Orlando Magic. There’s no prescription for broken confidence, but at least Simmons, amid a fan base and city both turning on him, knows he has Howard in his corner.