Simmons scored 18 points. More important, he attached himself to the Rockets’ James Harden like a strip of Velcro. As a result, Harden shot 2 of 11 from the field and collected six turnovers before he fouled out.
“He’s never been afraid,” Hodge said of Simmons. “But it was hard to predict that he’d be going head-to-head with James Harden in the Western Conference semifinals and outplaying him by all accounts.”
Simmons traveled a long road to reach this phase of his career — “I’ve been waiting for this all my whole life,” he said — and he also, in many ways, typifies the Spurs’ commitment to scouting and development. He was not some ballyhooed star out of high school. He was undrafted. He even considered abandoning basketball before the Spurs plucked him out of relative obscurity.
For most of his life, he has been a basketball vagabond, hopscotching between teams and lesser leagues. When one door closed, he forced another ajar. He has created his own opportunities, overcome his own mistakes.
“Basketball,” Simmons said. “Just got to pound the rock, stay with it for 48 minutes.”
Now, with the Spurs, deep in the playoffs, he has found a home. It defies easy explanation.
“In some ways, he’s a neophyte, even though he’s older,” Coach Gregg Popovich said. “He hasn’t really been in our program for a really long time and gotten minutes. This year, he’s started to get pretty decent minutes and obviously, in the playoffs he’s getting more.”
Simmons’s story actually starts here in Houston, where he attended an underperforming high school. Nothing came easily. He later played at Paris Junior College and at Midland College, coached by Hodge at both small schools in dusty parts of Texas. Simmons was 6-foot-6 and had rare length and versatility.
“We won a lot of games,” said Hodge, now the associate head coach at the University of North Texas. “He was always such a fluid, gifted athlete.”
Simmons went on to play one season at the University of Houston, where he led the team in scoring. At the time, Hodge had moved on to become an assistant coach at Southern Mississippi, which visited Houston for a game late in the regular season. Hodge was responsible for coming up with a game plan to defend Simmons, who proceeded to score 28 points.
“I had to hear about that for a while,” Hodge said.
Then life got tricky for Simmons. He left school early — he wanted to help support his family — but was not drafted. He landed with a semipro team called the Sugar Land Legends, averaging nearly 37 points a game. He later paid a $150 registration fee to try out for the Spurs’ affiliate in the N.B.A. Development League, which was probably the wisest investment he could have made.
Simmons wound up spending two seasons in the D-League, but he still had doubts about his future. The D-League did not pay well, and Simmons was getting older. His mother recently told NBA.com that she went so far as to advise him to quit basketball and become a barber.
But he stuck with the game.
Finally, in 2015, the Spurs had seen enough promise to sign him. When the Spurs visited the Denver Nuggets, Popovich decided to rest a bunch of his starters, which meant that Simmons, still an understudy, got more time on the floor. He took advantage, scoring 15 points while shooting 5 of 7 from the field in 35 minutes.
It was a snapshot of his potential and his growing reliability. Even this season, his playing time was inconsistent. In Game 2 of the Spurs’ first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, for example, he did not leave the bench in a 14-point victory. But he prides himself on his preparation. He could be cutting hair.
Danny Green, one of the Spurs’ more experienced players, said Simmons had improved as a defender. Last season, Simmons was prone to getting into foul trouble.
“Now, he’s good at getting his hands out of there, guarding guys without fouling and disrupting the offense for them,” Green said. “Offensively, he’s picking and choosing his spots.”
Manu Ginobili, who, at 39, has more playoff mileage than anyone else on the team, seems to regard Simmons with a mix of envy and gratitude.
“It’s great to have a guy like that because we’re all kind of tired at this time” of the season, Ginobili said. “Being so young and so athletic, he provides us with a boost.”
As the visiting locker room at Toyota Center emptied out late Thursday night, Simmons was anticipating the team’s series with the Warriors, saying he needed to study game film.
By now, he knows enough to be ready for whatever comes next.