Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers easily dismantled the Brooklyn Nets 4-1 to book their ticket to a mouth-watering Eastern Conference Semi-Finals match-up against the Toronto Raptors.
3 TAKEAWAYS: 76ers blowout the Nets by 22 in series-clinching Game 5
Whether he liked it or not - this series was about Ben Simmons and his ability to overcome adversity, his critics and be comfortable playing the role of the bad guy.
Spoiler alert: he did.
People tend to forget that Simmons is only 22 years-old. With everything he's achieved in his short career along with his immense skill and talent, the Australian point guard is one of the most scrutinised players in the NBA.
This season alone, Simmons has dealt with conversations about his jump shot, off-court life, relationships with teammates and more. But every step of the way, Simmons has just shrugged off the criticism and balled out.
That criticism hit a crescendo in this series, with Simmons facing multiple moments of adversity and coming out on top every step of the way.
Game 1 of this series, Simmons was booed off the court by the Philly fans after his nine-point, seven-rebound and three-assist performance in a 111-102 home loss.
Simmons would then turn heel on the 76ers fans, stating post-game "if you're going to boo, stay on that side."
With his team's back against the wall, and his own personal relationship with the fans on the rocks - Simmons would respond in what was one of the most important games of his career to date, with a 18-point, 10-rebound and 12-assist triple-double performance to lead the 76ers to a 145-123 win to tie up the series.
After Game 2, the Aussie would once again find himself on the receiving end of criticism. This time from Nets veteran Jared Dudley who referred to Simmons as an "average" player in the halfcourt when interviewed after the game.
"I think that Ben Simmons is a great player in transition," Dudley said. "Once you slow him up in the half court, I think he's average when it comes to that."
When asked about the criticism, Simmons replied: "it's coming from Jared Dudley, come on."
Fresh off 'Average-gate', Simmons and the 76ers would head to Brooklyn for Game 3 and to an arena and fanbase that has been starved of playoff basketball for four seasons.
EMBIID: 'We have the talent we need to win it all'
To make matters worse, Joel Embiid, who's dealing with a left knee injury, is sidelined for the game, meaning that Simmons will be expected to pick up even more of the load offensively.
Simmons was public enemy number one - every time he touched the ball he was booed by the Brooklyn crowd.
But that didn't deter him and Simmons proved he's comfortable playing the role of the bad guy, having himself a career night, dropping a playoff career-high 31 points along with nine assists and four rebounds to lead the 76ers to a 131-115 win.
Simmons especially connected well with JJ Redick, finding his guard open a number of times for knockdown shots.
"Ben and I have an amazing thing," Redick said after the game. "It's very organic, we don't really call plays - we just get into stuff and talk about it in the huddle if we see something that a team is doing and we feel like we could exploit it."
"There were three or four plays tonight where we did that."
"I thought it was one of Ben's more dominant games," 76ers coach Brett Brown said. "As a team I think we went into a two-minute meltdown, and at the end of the third period Brooklyn went on that run."
"They sort of sat in the zone and we didn't handle it that well. Short of that particular phase in the game, I thought Ben was exceptional.
"They started trying to foul him; at that point he hadn't missed a free throw. He missed the two after they intentionally fouled him. He made another two to follow it up. So whether you look at his confidence, his body language, just walking to the line or the things he did with organic play, I give Ben a tremendous amount of credit. He did it all tonight, particularly without Joel Embiid."
His teammate and fellow Australian Jonah Bolden agreed.
"A lightbulb went off after that first game," Bolden told NBA.com after Game 3. "We're all human and make mistakes, but he responded in the second game and he responded tonight"
"He took it to another level and I'm sure he'll continue to do that."
Bolden was correct - Simmons continued to impress as the series went on.
In the 76ers Game 4 win, Embiid would return but an on-court scuffle that spilled into the front row of the fans would see Jimmy Butler and Brooklyn's veteran troublemaker Dudley ejected. With the 76ers down at the time, the Butler ejection threatened to derail the 76ers, but Embiid and Simmons put the team on their back, working relentlessly together to rally Philly back for the win.
Simmons dropped 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, but it was his clutch steal with 4.8 seconds left in the game that would be his signature moment from the game.
"I saw a partnership," 76ers coach Brett Brown said after the game. "You especially saw it when we posted Jo [Joel Embiid], Ben [Simmons] finding space as his men left behind Joel's post-up and then defensively, you could see them talking about what we were doing in pick and rolls."
"I think that there was a deeper connection after Jimmy [Butler] was ejected and offensively and defensively you can see what might make you say that."
Simmons has also impressively managed to shut-down Brooklyn's #1 threat in this series - D'Angelo Russell. Simmons held Russell to 34.5% from the field, well down on his season average of 43.4%.
"Ben has done a tremendous job defending D'Angelo Russell," Jimmy Butler said. "He is our point guard and he is running everything because he is so smart and he knows how to get guys the ball in positions where they can score."
In Game 5, Simmons would general the Sixers to a 122-100 blowout win that saw them lead by as many as 39 points.
"I think we forget he's 22 years old." Brett Brown said. "Whether he's getting booed or there's something else going on with some level of scrutinising Ben, he is incredibly confident within himself."
"He has put in a tremendous amount of work apart from being pretty darn good. I'm just so happy for him to play the way that he played.
"Internally I think he's got tremendous confidence."
.@NBCSPhilly's @SerenaWinters interviews @BenSimmons25 after the win over Brooklyn to close out Round I.#PhilaUnite | #HereTheyCome pic.twitter.com/u9gHZCbCij- Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 24, 2019
After getting through Brooklyn, Simmons now faces arguably the toughest task of his career - an in-form Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors are a tough match-up for the Sixers, and especially Simmons, who will find himself guarded by Kawhi Leonard. But he doesn't seem too worried about that - he's just another challenge on the road to success.
"I think it's just the playoffs and I think that brings the best out of good players," Simmons said after Game 5 in Philly. "I think everybody's kind of on that same wave mindset to where we're trying to win a championship."