The roars picked up moments later Ben Simmons emerged from the tunnel, the good vibes from pre-game warmups—where Simmons signed autographs, posed for pictures, even heard “F— all these fans, Joel is scared!” from one supporter—buried under an avalanche of boos. They booed when Simmons was introduced and each time he touched the ball. They erupted when he missed a free throw. They wore Mister Softee t-shirts with Simmons’s likeness and taped expletives on his jerseys. No Joel Embiidno James Harden, no problem for the more than 20,000 Sixers fans who crammed into Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night. They didn’t come to see one team win as much as one player lose.
And he did. Philadelphia—down Tyrese Maxey, too—thumped Brooklyn 115-106 on Tuesday. Tobias Harris scored 24 points. De’Anthony Melton added 22. The Sixers connected on 50% of their three-pointers and outrebounded the Nets 49-35, including 20-4 on the offensive glass. Jacque Vaughn said Brooklyn made so many mistakes in the first two quarters they barely had enough time to show them all on film at halftime.
“Baffling,” Vaughn said.
Simmons was a mixed bag. He started off fast, collecting three assists on the Nets first three possessions. He found Nic Claxton for a layup on an inbounds pass. He found Claxton again for a dunk seconds later. He flexed towards the Sixers bench after tipping a pass ahead to Kevin Durant and offered a Jordan-esque shrug towards the crowd after knocking down a pair of free throws. He had nine points and five assists in the first half and appeared well on his way to a successful return.
The second half was a different story. Harris got hot. Georges Niang (16 points) did, too. The Nets, physically inferior, even against a team without Embiid, were punished on the boards. Simmons had six assists in the third quarter but, as Philly fans gleefully noted on social media, he didn’t add anything to the stat sheet in the fourth. He finished with 11 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. Down 14 with just over three minutes left, Vaughn emptied his bench. The Sixers couldn’t because, well, with just ten players available they didn’t have much of a bench.
“They played free,” said Durant. “They had nothing to lose. Those shots are going to feel better when they leave their hands. You got to make them miss tonight and they hit them. You have got to give them credit.”
The Nets woes aside—more on that later—Simmons’ play continues to be encouraging. He averaged 16 points in the three games prior to Tuesday’s loss, shooting 84% from the field. He looks stronger. More confident, too. Asked if he attributed his recent play to physical or mental improvements, Simmons said “a little bit of both.”
“I haven’t had as many opportunities to get the reps in,” said Simmons. “I’m spending more time in the gym. Working on my body consistently. Whatever I can do to progress and be better I want to do.”
Addressing his return to Philadelphia, Simmons kept it light. He shrugged off the boos (“I thought it would be louder,” Simmons said) and thanked the “lifelong fans” who welcomed him during warmups. He acknowledged before the game that he has no relationship with Embiid (“We’re going to do our secret handshake,” Simmons cracked when asked about running into Embiid) and called getting through the game “one step in the right direction.” On playing in front of a hostile crowd in Philadelphia, Simmons said, “I think it’s going to be like this forever.”
“I feel like I’m in a good place,” Simmons said. “For me to come in here and just play basketball, I’m happy. I’m doing what I love. To be out there and have that experience was amazing … I think it was a good step forward.”
Said Vaughn, “I thought he was in attack mode, he was aggressive, showed a lot of poise through the course of the night. The experience to get through and get it behind him, really good.”
Simmons aside, the Nets have issues. Big issues. After a brief tightening during Irving’s seven-game absence, the defense is again unraveling. Brooklyn is significantly undersized on the inside and no help is on the way. “It’s really a mentality of us deciding we’re going to play defense,” Vaughn said. On Tuesday, an exasperated Vaughn suggested that he would base his rotations on who wants to play hard. “Rebounding is you want it or I want it,” said Vaughn. “I am going to box you out or I’m not going to. Too many times tonight we made the choice to not box out and we paid for it.”
There aren’t any solutions. Not obvious ones, anyway. Staring at the stat sheet, Durant noted key offensive numbers. “It’s the same s—t,” Durant said. “Twenty more shots than us and seven more three-pointers. That’s the game” Asked how it could be fixed, Durant said “Just go do it … rebound, box out, move the ball, guard it one-on-one.”
It may not be that simple. The Nets have the offensive firepower to beat anyone and the defensive willpower to lose to, well, everyone. “Are we going to defend?” asked Vaughn. “Are we not going to defend? Are we going to take each possession seriously or are we not?” In Brooklyn, a revitalized Simmons helps, but as the Nets learned on Tuesday, it isn’t enough.
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