Shaq: NBA freak lives in Simmons’ head
Ben Simmons said it himself after coughing up 11 turnovers in his first meeting with Kawhi Leonard this season: "He's a freak."
With dinner plate hands and a wingspan better suited to a small aircraft, Leonard has been tormenting NBA scorers for seasons.
But he appears to have taken particular pleasure in ruining Simmons this season, following up that tortuous first clash in October with two more masterclasses as the Aussie point guard tallied 24 turnovers across three meetings with the 2014 NBA Finals MVP.
It has NBA legends Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley fearing for Simmons as Philadelphia and Toronto prepare to open their second round NBA playoff series in Canada on Sunday.
"I watched two of those Toronto-Philly games," Barkley said on TNT. "(Leonard) had Ben Simmons afraid to dribble."
"I guarantee you Ben Simmons is worried about Kawhi Leonard," NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal added. "He's in his head. If he doesn't overcome that they will lose."
Toronto took the season series against Philly 3-1 but Leonard, and point guard Kyle Lowry, didn't play in the game the 76ers won.
Leonard has never lost a game against Philadelphia, going 10-0 during his time in San Antonio and 3-0 this season for Toronto.
"Ben Simmons is the key to this series," Rockets championship winner Kenny Smith said. "If he lets Kawhi Leonard control him they lose in five or six games. If he doesn't, then there's a series."
Simmons played some of the best basketball of his career as the 76ers saw off the Brooklyn Nets 4-1 in the first round and had a simple plan on how he'd approach playing Leonard. "Prepare, stay focused," Simmons said.
In worse news for Philly, the Raptors also have a big man in Marc Gasol that's given franchise centre Joel Embiid more headaches than any player outside of Boston's Al Horford.
Embiid had 37 points and 13 rebounds when the team's met last but Gasol was still with Memphis at that point.
The Sixers and Raptors both dropped their playoff opener before winning four straight; the Raptors against Orlando.
The two franchises have not met in the playoffs since Allen Iverson, now a postseason regular at his courtside seat, and the Sixers needed seven games to top Vince Carter and the Raptors in 2001.
Toronto's home court edge as the No. 2 seed in the East looms large - the Sixers have lost 13 straight games at Scotiabank Arena since their last win there on November 10, 2012.
"They're really going to struggle," Aussie basketball legend Shane Heal said.
But 76ers coach Brett Brown is putting faith in the knowledge his team hasn't faced the Raptors with Tobias Harris in the line-up yet this season.
"We all understand what the math says with our success in Toronto, and it's not flattering. But it's also not directed to the team that we have," coach Brett Brown said. "And so you can credit it or you can discredit it. I'm discrediting it. I think that we have a new group. We have a new opportunity."