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Playoffs 2019

NBA Playoffs 2019: Ben Simmons is the 76ers' only hope of slowing down Kawhi Leonard

kawhi-ben-043019-ftr-getty.jpg
Kawhi Leonard vs. Ben Simmons (NBA Getty Images)

The biggest adjustment the Philadelphia 76ers made in Game 2 of their Conference Semifinals showdown with the Toronto Raptors was matching Joel Embiid up with Pascal Siakam and Tobias Harris with Marc Gasol.

An equally important adjustment, however, was matching Ben Simmons up with Kawhi Leonard.

The 76ers had absolutely no answer for Leonard in Game 1, but he did most of his damage against Harris and Jimmy Butler. According to NBA.com, Leonard scored 27 of his 45 points when he was defended by Philadelphia's starting forwards, doing so on an almost perfect 10-for-11 shooting from the field.

While Leonard scored 10 more points against Simmons, they were a little harder to come by - he missed five of his nine shot attempts.

That might have been all the evidence 76ers head coach Brett Brown needed to give Simmons sole responsibility of guarding Leonard for the remainder of this series. According to NBA, Simmons defended Leonard for 61.0 percent of his offensive possessions in Game 2, up from 35.1 percent in Game 1.

It still wasn't enough to stop Leonard from having another big game, but it's clear that Simmons is Philadelphia's only hope of keeping the Raptors superstar in check.

76ers against Kawhi this series
Defender Possessions Points FG% Turnovers
Ben Simmons 77 31 50.0 2
The rest of the 76ers 82 48 77.3 1

Leonard is a matchup nightmare for most opponents because in addition to being 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan - the combination of which allows him to shoot over the top of most wing defenders - he has the strength to bulldoze his way to the basket.

Those physical advantages aren't quite as pronounced against Simmons, who measures in at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan and weighs an identical 230 pounds, per NBA.com.

It shows on possessions like this:

In addition to having the foot speed to pressure Leonard beyond the 3-point line, Simmons is nimble enough to navigate his way around screens and has the length to prevent Leonard from getting off a clean look from midrange, forcing someone else - Norman Powell in this case - to make a play.

Butler has the speed and strength down, but he lacks the length to contest Leonard's shots in the same way Simmons can. Harris has the length, but he lacks the strength and speed to keep Leonard in front of him.

Again, there have been many times in Games 1 and 2 where none of that mattered - he's still scored an efficient 31 points against Simmons - but Simmons has been able to make Leonard work harder for his points than anyone else on the 76ers.

"I was just trying to make it hard," Simmons said after Game 2. "Obviously, Kawhi is a very talented guy, an All-Star. He is great. Just make it tough on him offensively was really my job."

This possession from Game 2 is perhaps the best example, as it takes a contested fadeaway deep into the shot clock for the Raptors to get a much-needed basket:

Simmons, however, did receive a lot of help in Game 2. Whenever Leonard was able to beat him off the dribble, there was almost always a second defender waiting for him underneath the basket, usually Joel Embiid.

It's something Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made note of after the game.

"I think Simmons worked hard on Kawhi, but they were giving him lots of help," Nurse said. "They were really closing down on him in lanes and things, and they did a good job, I thought, of sending double teams to the other areas as well.

"Anytime we tried to post, there were double teams coming."

That help and those double teams resulted in Leonard dishing out a game-high six assists while committing only one turnover, with all but one of his assists setting up a wide open 3-pointer. And had Raptors not named Leonard made more than seven of their 27 3-point attempts, he could've had at least a couple more.

They'll likely consider that the lesser of two evils, but it will be interesting to see how Simmons and the 76ers respond if some of those same shots start to fall in Games 3 and 4.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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