The last time anyone saw Ben Simmons play basketball, he was still in a Philadelphia 76ers jersey. It’s been 473 days since the Sixers, then the East’s No. 1 seed, battled the Atlanta Hawks, then the East’s No. 5 seed.
It’s a game most Sixers fans have burned into their memory. Almost like the JFK assassination or 9/11, everyone remembers where they were when Simmons passed up a slam dunk for a tough pass to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and failed to convert both free throws.
It’s an image that lives in Sixers infamy because it was the culmination of so many things going wrong in Philadelphia that season despite the Sixers grabbing the No. 1 seed. By then, Simmons was spiraling confidence-wise; even the defensively challenged Hawks made the former LSU standout a non-factor on offense.
Even though the Sixers lost that game and the series, it was what came after that made the play so iconic. Joel Embiid said he knew the game was over when the team passed up on the dunk. Doc Rivers followed Embiid up by saying he “didn’t know” if Simmons could be a starting point guard in the NBA. And Simmons followed it all up by holding out and requesting a trade that summer.
It’s a game-time moment that has puzzled fans. But now, Simmons is offering some clarity behind his thought process in passing and not dunking. Further, he explained how crucial it is to get everything right in the playoffs.
“And in the playoffs, you need to make the right decisions majority of the time. And for that moment, I mean, bro, it happened, and I was like, ‘Ok. **** now we got to make another play. That’s how I’m thinking. Then I didn’t realize how, you know, everyone was posting, and I’m like, it was that big?,” Simmons said on an episode of Old Man and the Three.
Ultimately, Simmons is okay with how it went down, even if today he would have dunked it instead of passing.
Simmons Explains the Play in His Own Words
Simmons sat down recently with former Sixers teammate JJ Redick for Redick’s podcast The Old Man and the Three to discuss his time in Philadelphia and future in Brooklyn. And when Redick asked Simmons to explain his performance against the Hawks in 2021, Simmons was candid.
“In the moment, I just spun, and I’m assuming Trae is going to come over quicker. So I’m thinking he’s going to come full-blown, and I see Matisse (Thybulle) going – You know, Matisse is athletic, can get up. So, I’m thinking okay, quick pass. He’s got to flush it, not knowing how much space there was. It happened so quick that you just make a read,” Simmons explained.
Simmons also said that he wasn’t expecting Trae Young to be the defender meeting him at the rim. Young is a notoriously poor defender who is a full ten inches shorter than Simmons.
In theory, had Simmons known it was Young who was pressing the paint and not, say Clint Capela, perhaps Simmons would have taken the ball to the hoop himself. But to expect Thybulle to handle business when Simmons couldn’t is also a tall ask.
Despite the Sixers crashing out of the playoffs shortly after that play, Simmons explained that he is at peace with the decision to pass and not score.
Simmons: ‘I Should Have Punched That S***’
Redick wasn’t about the let Simmons get off too easy in the interview. After allowing Simmons to explain his side of things, Redick added his own two cents, noting that when one reviews the play in slo-mo, “it looks really bad.”
“When I look at it now, I’m like ‘man, I should have punched that s***. But it didn’t happen and I was okay with that,” Simmons replied.
It’s hard to know what would have happened if Simmons had scored and not passed. Ultimately, the Sixers lost the game 103-96. But the pass came at a pivotal moment where momentum could have swung back in Philadelphia’s favor with a monster jam. After Thybulle was fouled, he converted one of the two free throws, bringing the score to 88-87 Atlanta. Over the next 69 seconds, Atlanta went on a 5-0 run with 2:20 left to play.
It was a deficit the Sixers couldn’t erase.