Win or lose, the game opens up significantly for the Portland Trail Blazers with Anfernee Simons on the floor.
Following a return from a right thumb injury that kept him out for six weeks, Simons put up 28 points against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday and poured in 30 in Friday’s 125-112 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Simons added eight assists and five rebounds Friday, shooting 10 of 21 from the field and turning it over six times on an up-and-down night.
For a young team awash in the choppy waves of development, a reliable scorer is a life raft. Simons’ experience — beyond just his lethal shooting touch — keeps his less experienced teammates afloat, too.
“All the eyes are on him when he’s on the floor, so it’s kind of like playing 4 on 3 at different points in the game,” Blazers rookie Scoot Henderson said. “With his shooting ability and he can pass on the drive, Ant makes the game way, way easier for everybody.”
Henderson said Simons has been giving him tips on how to get to the hip of defenders on drives to the basket, and off the court has helped him manage the day-to-day grind of NBA life. It is a process that seems like it just happened for the 24-year-old Simons, who learned under the tutelage of Damian Lillard.
Lillard taught Simons, so Simons could teach Henderson. And so it goes: the student has become the master.
“All my vets told me experience is the best teacher,” Simons said. “You can tell somebody something is happening, but unless you actually see it happening over and over again, you don’t grasp it. At an early age, you’ve just got to be mentally tough to get through that, and he is. You need to just go out there, keep playing hard and doing your thing.”
Teams build their defensive game plans against the Blazers around Simons, particularly on nights like Friday with no Malcolm Brogdon, Jerami Grant or Deandre Ayton in the lineup. It was Ant and the kids, or “pups” as Blazers coach Chauncey Billups referred to the group.
“He changes things for us,” Billups said of Simons. “Having him back, it helps everything. He’s been really good defensively as well, back scrapping out there. But from an offensive standpoint, he just gets different coverages. When he’s out there it opens up, and when you talk about the 53 threes we shot, a lot of those come from trapping and blitzing Ant. It just kind of sucked that when he came back, our other vets aren’t playing and are banged up.”
Simons thrived off the ball playing alongside Lillard, finding himself in plenty of catch-and-shoot situations without the pressure of having to run the offense all the time. This is Simons’ team now, and with it comes point guard responsibilities — a positional emphasis Simons said he focused on heavily in the offseason.
“I’ve gotten so much better since emphasizing that during the summer,” Simons said. “It’s more that I’m now just out there thinking the game, instead of just thinking about the actual coming off the pick and roll and shooting the ball, passing, actually thinking about if I see Tim Hardaway come up early, I need to dish it out early. Just out there thinking the game way more than I usually would, just thinking of counters. Thinking about what I can do next. It worked out in certain situations for me.”
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