According to both head coach Jacque Vaughn and star forward Kevin Durant, there is no true rivalry between the Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers.
It’s hard to believe given the recent history between the two teams: James Harden forced his way from Brooklyn to Philadelphia at last year’s trade deadline, and both Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid threw Ben Simmons under the bus after a particularly poor series of plays in the 76ers’ Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the 2021 playoffs.
That was the last game Simmons ever played in a Sixers jersey: He sat out the entire front half of the season and cited mental health issues before the trade for Harden and has been suffocated with boos in each instance he’s returned to Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
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For Vaughn, however, the added juice comes simply from looking at the Eastern Conference standings: After dropping four straight games immediately following Durant’s injury, the Nets fell from second in the East to fourth and are now a game and a half behind the Sixers for the second seed in the conference.
“More than anything, it’s Philly is a game and a half above us in the standings, and I think that makes it important,” Vaughn said. “You’re playing an Eastern Conference team, and you don’t know what the results are gonna be at the end of the year. I think at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.”
Durant, on the other hand, is unsure NBA rivalries truly exist anymore.
“Rivalries in the NBA are not really a thing, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s going to be a battle amongst each fan base on social media, but as far as the players, it’s another game on the schedule, and each team is trying to get better and improve.”
One thing is certain: There will be a rivalry between Sixers fans and Simmons, quite possibly in perpetuity. Simmons has already played in front of Sixers fans once this season, but neither Embiid nor Harden played that night.
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Vaughn isn’t too concerned with how Simmons handles another visceral reaction from Philly fans because he’s already gone through it. He is more concerned that Simmons continues to round into All-Star form after missing all of last season and subsequently undergoing offseason back surgery.
The priority for Simmons, Vaughn says, it to continue playing with force every minute he’s on the floor. It’s been a sticking point for months: the Nets want Simmons to give everything he has on every possession.
“He’s definitely taken some strides that way. Now it’s more possessions. Let’s accomplish that. More,” Vaughn said. “We’re gonna continue to ask more of him.”
Vaughn specifically said he wants Simmons to become more effective in offensive possessions where the ball is not in his hands.
“Ben is very comfortable with the ball in his hands,” he said. “Now we’re asking him to do other things with the basketball, without the basketball, and I think he’s growing in those areas.
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“You saw it in Golden State, whether it was him rolling, receiving a pass, and then dribbling and penetrating the paint and finding Royce [O’Neale for an open three]. Whether it was you seeing [starting center Nic Claxton] and Ben away from the rim, and then all of a sudden getting into some action. So there’s some space that we’re asking him to grow in that’s a little bit different that we think we can make some money on.”