Ben Simmons is starting to round into shape, but the Nets are still strugglingNovember 26, 2022
The thought of Ben Simmons tearing up the floor at the Wells Fargo Center three years ago would have been laughable. This time wearing the uniform of the Brooklyn Nets, he stood out on Tuesday night by appearing as near to his old self as he has all season.
He was driving the ball, putting the pressure on his previous team’s defense, and going to the rim at every opportunity. He glanced towards the basket after catching the ball inside the 3-point line. He would drive to the basket whenever his side gained possession of the ball on the perimeter. He was really combative. He had a lot of energy. He moved quite quickly. Simmons played 32 minutes and finished with 11 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 blocks. He made his first two attempts at the charity stripe, and after each one went in, he shrugged like Michael Jordan.
Simmons presented really well. In contrast, his Nets did not. The defense was very weak. The 76ers, without James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey, shot 50% from long and grabbed 20 offensive boards against them. The Nets outshot the Sixers by 19, but still shot at a blistering 55% owing in large part to Simmons’ effort. They were sluggish when switching displays, rotating, and using box outs. The result: a 115-106 Sixers triumph.
“It’s truly an attitude of us choosing that we’re going to play defense,” Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn told reporters after the game. “The quantity of errors we had at halftime was astounding for this squad. We had to stop the recording since we didn’t have enough time to show them all.”
Rather than elaborate, Kevin Durant just said: “The exact same hogwash. They took twenty more shots and seven more 3-pointers than we did. As it should be.”
The one bright point of the game was Simmons’ performance. Eight hundred and eighty-five days had gone since he had last suited up for a game on the Wells Fargo Center Court. You’ve heard it before. How, after an unusual 2020 playoff run in which he stopped shooting the ball and, depending on your point of view, either helped to or caused to a second-round defeat to the lower-seeded Atlanta Hawks, he vowed never to play for the Sixers again. How Sixers coach Doc Rivers and star Embiid criticized Simmons in separate postgame press conferences, how Simmons refused to join the team at times citing mental health difficulties and demanded a trade, how the Sixers traded him for Harden, how a back injury prevented Simmons from suiting up for the Nets during their stretch run last season, and how he came out this season looking like his career might be headed off a cliff.
On the other hand, Simmons seems to have turned a corner recently. For the fourth game in a row, he has played like his old All-Star self. Simmons’ demotion from the starting lineup to the bench started two weeks ago in Sacramento, when he still managed to score 11 points and grab five rebounds. After that, he had a season-high 22-point game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. He also had 15 points, 13 boards, and 7 assists in a game against Portland. Every game he plays in, he shows signs of becoming more agile and powerful. He blamed his slow start on his rehabilitation from offseason back surgery and early-season knee pain, but he’s been feeling better in recent weeks and credits it for his sudden improvement. He seems relaxed and certain for the first time in years, despite having returned to Philadelphia, a city he knows is not fond of him.
After the defeat, Simmons remarked, “I feel like I’m in a good spot.” “Being able to go out and do what I love for a living was an incredible opportunity. Obviously it wasn’t the outcome we wanted, particularly to lose a game like that, but you know, I believe it’s a positive step forward.”
Even before the first game against his old squad, Simmons seemed calm. He spent his morning media session laughing with reporters. Simmons recalled Howard Eskin, a prominent sportscaster in Philadelphia and the city’s most vociferous and staunch adversary of Simmons, saying, “I remember you heckling me a lot.” Simmons then uploaded a selfie of the two on Instagram. Simmons has said that he has not talked with Embiid since the 2021 playoffs; when asked how he anticipated reuniting with his former teammate, Simmons responded, “We’re going to perform our secret handshake.”
But he didn’t just make light of things and laugh off tough issues. Simmons was asked to reflect on his time spent with Embiid, and he said, “There were many memorable moments. Wonderful moments were had by everybody. I have a lot of respect for Joe, too, you know. It’s clear that things didn’t work out, but well, such is life. Unfortunately, not everything goes your way.”
After the team’s morning practice, Simmons had a haircut, and then, about five hours later, he walked onto the court at the Wells Fargo Center without wearing a Sixers uniform for the first time. Quite a few of the arena’s seats were unoccupied. There was a hush throughout the structure. Simmons settled onto a seat next to Jacque Vaughn, the head coach of the Nets. Simmons spent the whole ten minutes of their conversation nodding while dribbling the ball between his knees. He then warmed up by signing autographs for his many admirers.
Simmons was booed all game long, but not as loudly as when he returned to Brooklyn in March with the Nets and didn’t play. Simmons commented after the game, “I thought it was going to be louder.” Perhaps if Joel Embiid had been able to play, the energy on the court would have been different, and the audience would have responded accordingly, but for now, both the Sixers and their supporters are focused on other things. Any idea when Embiid will be back? Harden when? Do you think there’s a chance they’d hit it off?
Similar circumstances apply to the Nets. Simmons may be feeling more like himself again, but the rest of the squad isn’t showing signs of living up to its preseason potential. It’s unacceptable to lose to the Sixers, who were without their three best players. Vaughn, who has been the head coach for less than a month after Steve Nash’s departure, has already praised his team’s effort.
After the defeat, which reduced the Nets to 8-10, he added, “We’ll play the players who want to play hard.”
To judge from what he stated, Simmons seems to be doing well. Good news for the Nets, indeed. Worryingly, despite Simmons’s rediscovery of his game, the team’s other problems and defeats persist.