Ben Simmons shines on return to Philadelphia, but Nets fall to 76ers

PHILADELPHIA — With the entire arena rooting against him, Ben Simmons stepped to the free-throw line in the first quarter Tuesday night and prepared for the first of two shots.

As he dribbled, Sixers fans around Wells Fargo Center got up and booed him. Others pulled their phones out to document where they sat as they heckled one of Philadelphia’s biggest sports villains in recent history.

Simmons, a career 60 percent free-throw shooter, knocked down both shots to silence the crowd. As he made his way down the court, all he could do was shrug at his haters, a move popularized by Michael Jordan.

“Just basketball,” Simmons said afterward. “You know, we were people too, you know. We have emotions. Just fun, do you know? Try to enjoy the game at the same time.”

In Simmons’ long-awaited return to the City of Brotherly Love, he was a bright spot in the Nets’ 115-106 loss to the Sixers on Tuesday night. He finished with 11 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in 32 minutes. At times this season the Nets have played with Simmons weighing them down as he played back into shape. In Philly, it was the opposite.

“I thought he was in attack mode,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “He was aggressive. He showed a lot of poise throughout the course of the night. He competed on both ends. I thought overall, the experience for him to get through and get behind him, really good.”

In his past four games, Simmons is averaging 14.8 points, 6.5 assists and 8.3 rebounds per game on 79 percent shooting. Against his old team, the diversity of his talent was once again on display. He assisted on the first three baskets. He attacked the basketball. He trash-talked the Sixers’ bench. Vaughn ripped his team’s approach and effort after the game, but Simmons didn’t fit that profile.

“There’s no way we’re going to win games if we don’t play hard every single possession every night,” Vaughn said. “It’s as simple as that. We’ll play the guys who want to play hard.”

When Kyrie Irving returned from his eight-game suspension Monday against the Grizzlies, the idea was the Nets had a four-game runway to get back on track with their three primary players all available. The first game went as planned, with the Nets beating a Grizzlies team that lacked Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. The Sixers’ injured trio of Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey was unavailable for Tuesday’s game. That didn’t stop Tobias Harris from scoring 24 points to carry the Sixers over the Nets in a bad loss to begin a back-to-back. The Nets play in Toronto on Wednesday. The Raptors will be without Pascal Siakam.

“They ran a few plays for Tobias consistently, and we didn’t make any changes,” Simmons said. “Looked like we were a little tired or just sluggish or whatever it was. I don’t know what it was, but you know, we got to do better in terms of energy.”

At the morning shootaround, Simmons wasn’t overlooking his former squad, regardless of their injuries. “I think the fans will make up for it,” he said. When the Nets played in Philly in March while Simmons was nursing a back injury, the heckling started at the team hotel in the morning when a fan charged the point guard he once cheered for on his way to the bus. That fan was tackled by security. At the game, fans showed up in clown costumes donning his jersey. Yet despite being fully healthy, the Sixers got blown out by the Simmons-less Nets.

Tuesday was subdued in some ways. The arena wasn’t sold out but more than half-full. Simmons led the Nets onto the court with Patty Mills, his fellow Australian and longtime friend of him, right behind him. Thus commenced the boarding. Simmons got heckled every time he touched the ball. In Vaughn’s pregame news conference, he referenced the movie “Old School” and said: “This is a Vince Vaughn earmuffs night tonight. … It ain’t got nothing to do with the weather, either,” hinting at the profanity that might come Simmons’ way. A few “F—Ben Simmons” chants could be heard throughout the game, but his play helped combat it.

His passing was pinpoint accurate, which led to eight early points from Nic Claxton. Later on, Kevin Durant found Simmons on a baseline cut for a reverse layup. And he showed off his two-way skills by blocking Georges Niang, pushing the pace and finishing with a dunk. Simmons said since he wasn’t playing against the fans, he didn’t expect them to be a problem. He expected worse.

“I thought it was gonna be louder,” Simmons said.

Amid all the venom, Simmons had a few reminders that he still has some fans in his former home. He climbed into the stands after his pregame workout to sign a jersey and take some selfies. At halftime, he found a young fan holding one of his Sixers jerseys and waiting for him as he came out of the tunnel. He signed that, too. In the fourth quarter, he unintentionally gave back to fans after a missed pair of free throws gave them free Chick-Fil-A. After the game, he exchanged pleasantries with Harris and Maxey and high-fived a few fans as he left the court. Durant, who dealt with a similar environment when he returned to Oklahoma City in February 2017 as a member of the Warriors, said the attitude of fans is “misplaced love.”

“I think they all just have a lot of great memories with Ben and they don’t like how it ended,” Durant said.

“It was just nice to see,” Simmons said of the positive interactions. “You know, (I) have support in Philadelphia still, and lifelong fans, they do support me. So that was really cool to see. You know, that’s a nice feeling. I think I did some things in Philadelphia that can be respected and appreciated. And I don’t think we all have that time. So it was good to have moments like that.”

The LSU product knew better than to think he permanently expelled a demon by playing against the Sixers. He has yet to play against Embiid, who has waved Durant off his own floor and rallied fans to his cause after a fight with Karl-Anthony Towns. What could he have in store should he and Simmons face off?

“I think it’s gonna be like this forever,” Simmons said. “I mean, I don’t really see that changing.”

But his return marked another hurdle passed. Simmons is finally in a groove, and the Nets’ core is all available — the latter of which has been a rarity in Brooklyn the past three years. The runway to get back on track is there. Now they need to capitalize on it.

(Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)


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