By John Denton
Oct. 10, 2017
SAN ANTONIO – Jonathon Simmons got to the NBA in the most unconventional manner, and he’s been able to not only stick around but thrive by taking an approach that is considered by many to be in-your-face uncomfortable.
His coaches, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich in his past and Orlando’s Frank Vogel currently, use words like “nasty’’ and “edgy’’ to describe the 6-foot-6, 195-pound Simmons – nicknamed “Dog’’ – and he takes every bit of it as endearing compliments.
Simmons is completely comfortable bringing discomfort to others on the basketball court – primarily on the defensive end of the floor with an attacking style that is unlike many others in the NBA. Always the aggressor, Simmons dictates the action defensively by pushing his way up into the personal space of scorers. It’s such an aggressive form of defense that the Magic and Vogel are hoping that Simmons’ style can be transformational and rub off on teammates.
“He’s an attacking defender and he really gets up into you,’’ marveled Vogel, whose Magic featured Simmons most of Tuesday night in a 103-98 defeat of the San Antonio Spurs. “He’s good with his hands, he’s chest-to-chest and breathing in your face. He’s a guy you don’t want to play against. Absolutely (it can be infectious) and that’s what we’re hoping for.’’
Simmons, who spent his first two seasons in the NBA with the Spurs, played in San Antonio on Tuesday night for the first time since signing a free-agent contract with the Magic in July. He was cheered by the fans inside the AT&T Center and then he proceeded to go right at his former teammates in a way only he can. Not only did he keep starting guard Danny Green scoreless with some smothering defense, but he also attacked off the dribble and served as the motor for the Magic’s offense. He resisted the notion to overdo it against his former teammates and finished with 20 points, 10 assists and two steals in 33 minutes.
“It was a very cool night and it was more about just seeing the people,’’ said Simmons, who made his first-ever visit to Popovich’s office at the AT&T Center prior to tipoff. “Basketball is business, but those (Spurs) are great guys and they have a great staff. That’s mostly what tonight was about.’’
Vogel surprisingly came back with his starters in the fourth quarter for one final push and Simmons responded with a layup (as he was fouled) to put Orlando up 93-92 with 4:39 to play. Two minutes later, Simmons caught a lob pass from point guard Elfrid Payton, ducked his head and body under the rim and flipped the shot in to put the Magic up four. Finally, Simmons finished off his former team with a drive and dish – resulting in a dunk for Bismack Biyombo – that was a thing of beauty with 80 seconds remaining.
Vogel wanted his starters to feel the pressure of a late-game situation and on this night, they came through time and again down the stetch.
“I had the plan going in (to play the starters big minutes) because I’ve always taken the last two preseason games and tried to play them as close to a regular-season rotation as we can,’’ Vogel said. “Obviously, we had some guys out, but I just said, `if this was the regular season this is what I’d do.’
“What I liked is that our bench guys toward the beginning of the fourth quarter, they closed the gap and got us back in the game,’’ Vogel continued. “It’s good for those (starters) to get over 30 minutes, feel the end-of-game situations in these last two preseason games.’’
Orlando (3-2) was playing – and playing shorthanded by choice – for a second time in as many nights. The Magic rested four starters on Monday in Dallas when they lost to the Mavs. On Tuesday, they gave starters Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross and key reserves D.J. Augustin and Marreese Speights more time off to rest their legs as the regular season inches closer.
As he’s done all preseason, Aaron Gordon led the Magic with 27 points and 11 rebounds on 11 of 24 shooting with two 3-pointers. Biyombo surprisingly shot the ball well from distance and finished with 18 points in 31 minutes. Payton (11 points and eight assists in 33 minutes) and Mario Hezonja (four points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes) played well in extended minutes.
“I was just trying to attack, be aggressive and get into the paint so that I could get the ball to guys on our team who can score,’’ said Payton, who has looked immensely more comfortable working with Vogel and running the offense this preseason. “I was able to get it to Biz, Simmons and A.G. had it going the whole game. I was just trying to attack, cause confusion and kick the ball to open people.’’
The Magic had some struggles offensively, shooting just 43.3 percent and making only six of 23 3-pointers. Additionally, their ball-containment defense left a lot to be desired – something that was expected with so many starters out of the game. San Antonio had 56 points by halftime and 85 through three quarters when they briefly broke the game open. However, Orlando came charging back in the final 12 minutes and doubled-up the Spurs’ reserves 26-13 in the fourth period.
Dejounte Murray, who will be looked to fill in for the injured Tony Parker early in the season, scored 15 points for San Antonio.
The Magic will close the preseason on Friday night when they face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Amway Center. Orlando will host the Miami Heat in the regular-season opener on Oct. 18 at the Amway Center.
The Magic shifted to a smaller, sleeker lineup late last season to try and adapt to the sweeping small-ball trends in the NBA. They can easily get away with playing Gordon at power forward most nights, but the Spurs challenge that style of play with big men LaMarcus Aldridge (10 points) and Pau Gasol (six points, seven rebounds and three assists) along the front line.
Gordon used his speed advantage to score 17 points in the first half, but he had some trouble on the defensive end. He picked up two quick fouls, just as Biyombo did while defending San Antonio post-ups.
“(Aldridge) is really strong and he’s very difficult to guard, so defensively you’ve got to do your work early,’’ Gordon said of his defensive matchup on the night. “He got some easy buckets and some early fouls on me, but I appreciate Coach Frank leaving me in the game with two fouls and trusting me. He knows I can defend and offensively I was just trying to use my (speed) advantage to be a mismatch on that end of the floor.’’
In the days leading up to his San Antonio return, Simmons predicted that he would have “no emotions’’ as he tried to take the all-business approach taught to him by Popovich. The Spurs coach had fun with that, joking, “he actually said that I taught him something? I didn’t know if anything stuck or not.’’
Of course, Popovich was playfully poking fun at Simmons, one of his favorite players because of the determination that he showed while fighting his way to the NBA. Four years ago, Simmons actually paid $150 out of his own pocket for a tryout for the minor league Austin Toros. His aggressive, attacking style eventually earned him a spot on the Spurs’ roster. His story and style quickly made him a favorite of Popovich’s.
The San Antonio coach and Simmons met for approximately 15 minutes prior to Tuesday’s tipoff. Popovich had a pointed message for a player he is hoping has nothing but success with the Magic.
“He’s got a big heart and he’s come a long way,’’ Popovich said. “He’s a guy who paid his way to come to a D-League tryout and here he is with a contract and it’s a whole different world for him. I’m glad he has this (NBA) life now.
“He’s obviously a talented player and I’ll tell him, `it’s all between the ears’ and `how long you are going to last is dependent on how you handle things on an emotional and mental basis,’’’ the Spurs coach continued. “The talent is there and he did a great job for us last year. He came a long way in regard to his mental discipline and being more efficient on the court. Hopefully that will continue for Orlando.’’
That’s certainly the wish of Vogel and the Magic, who jumped at the opportunity to sign Simmons this summer when he became an unrestricted free agent. A team that played passively too often in the past and struggled almost nightly on the defensive end of the floor, Orlando needs Simmons to be the same attacking defender who is willing to get up into foes and make them uncomfortable. Recently, he said that style will continue because it’s the only way he knows how to play.
“I love nasty. I love the grit and that’s where I come from,’’ said Simmons, who made it out of a rough section of Houston as a child and had to battle again last month to weather the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey in his hometown. “(Playing with a nastiness), that’s just a part of me.’’
Popovich would concur, echoing this about Simmons’ toughness and unwillingness to back down from any situation: “He’s got an edge, a nastiness that he has applied in the right direction and for his own purposes, and it’s made him a better player. He’s a tough kid.’’
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