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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Ben Simmons rounding into form, but Nets still struggling


PHILADELPHIA — Just three years ago, the idea of Ben Simmons darting around the Wells Fargo Center court, making plays and wreaking havoc, wouldn’t have been noteworthy. But there he was Tuesday night, this time in a Brooklyn Nets uniform, standing out for doing exactly that and looking as close to his former self as he has all season.

He was pushing the ball and pressuring his former team’s defense, diving on the floor and to the rim. When he caught the ball in the paint he looked at the hoop. When teammates had the ball on the perimeter he cut to the basket. He was aggressive. He was bouncy. He was fast. All told, Simmons racked up 11 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in 32 minutes, to go along with three steals and three blocks. He even drained his first two free-throws — which he followed up with a Michael Jordan-like shrug.

Simmons looked great. His Nets, however, did not. Their effort was poor, especially on defense. They allowed the Philadelphia 76ers, who were playing without James Harden, Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, to drill half of their 32 attempts from deep and grab 20 offensive rebounds. The Nets shot a scorching 55% from the field — partly thanks to Simmons’ performance — but also took 19 fewer shots than the Sixers. Their switches on screens were lazy, their rotations slow, their box-outs non-existent. The result: a 115-106 Sixers win.

“It’s really a mentality of us deciding that we’re going to play defense,” Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn told reporters after the game. “The amount of mistakes we had at halftime was baffling for this group. We had to stop the tape because we didn’t have enough time to show them all.”

Kevin Durant was more succinct with his assessment: “It’s the same s–t. Twenty more shots than us and seven more 3-pointers. That’s the game.”

Simmons’ play was the lone bright spot. Eight hundred and eighty-five days had passed since he had last suited up for a game on the Wells Fargo Center Court. You know the story. How, after a strange 2020 playoff run, one where he ceased shooting the ball, which — depending on your perspective — either contributed or led to a second-round loss to the lower-seeded Atlanta Hawks, he insisted that he’d never put on a Sixers uniform again. How Sixers head coach Doc Rivers and star Embiid criticized Simmons in their respective postgame press conferences, how Simmons, at times citing mental health difficulties, refused to join the team 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, how he came out this season looking like his career might be headed off a cliff.

But Simmons has now seemed to turn a corner. This was the fourth-straight game where he looked close to his All-Star former self. The shift began two weeks ago in Sacramento, where Simmons, after being demoted from the starting lineup, went for 11 points and five rebounds off the bench. He followed that up with a 15-point, 13-rebound, seven-assist performance in Portland and then a season-high 22-point output Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies. He looks more explosive and athletic each game. He insisted throughout the season’s first month that it was his recovery from off-season back surgery and early-season knee soreness that was holding him back but that, in recent weeks, he’s begun feeling better, which, he says, has been the catalyst for this turnaround. For the first time in years, he looks confident and at ease, even upon returning to Philadelphia, a city in which he knows he’s not beloved.

“I feel like I’m in a good place,” Simmons said after the loss. “I’m happy I’m doing what I love so to be out there and have that experience was amazing. Obviously it wasn’t the result we wanted, especially to lose a game like that, but you know, I think it’s a good step forward.”

Even during the lead-up to his first game against his former team, Simmons looked relaxed. He spent his morning media session joking with reporters. When asked by Howard Eskin, one of Philadelphia’s most famous sportscasters and the city’s most vocal and steadfast Simmons critic, what he remembers about his time in Philadelphia, Simmons replied, “I remember you heckling me a lot.” The two later posed for a selfie, which Simmons posted on Instagram. When asked what he thought it would be like seeing Embiid, who Simmons has said he hasn’t spoken with since the 2021 playoffs, Simmons replied, “We’re gonna do our secret handshake.”

But he wasn’t all jokes, and didn’t lean humor to deflect difficult questions. When asked what he recalls about his time with Embiid, Simmons said, “A lot of highlights, we had a lot of highlights. We had a lot of great times. You know, I got a lot of love for Joe, too. Obviously it didn’t work out, but you know, that’s life. Not everything works in your favor.”

Simmons got a haircut after the team’s morning practice, then a little under five hours later strolled onto the floor of the Wells Fargo Center, his first time doing so not in a Sixers’ uniform. Most of the arena’s seats were empty. The building was quiet. Simmons found a seat next to Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn. The two chatted for 10 minutes, with Simmons, while dribbling a ball behind his legs, nodding. After warming up he signed autographs for fans.

Simmons was booed throughout the night, but the reaction was more subdued than when he returned last March with the Nets but didn’t play. “I thought it was going to be louder,” Simmons said after the game. Maybe if Embiid had played the emotions on the floor would have been different, and picked up on by the crowd, but for the moment the Sixers and their fans, have other concerns. When will Embiid return? When will Harden? Will the two be able to find chemistry?

The Nets find themselves in a similar place. Simmons might be back to his former self, but the team doesn’t appear to be any closer to fulfilling its preseason expectations. Losing to a Sixers team missing its three best players is inexcusable. Vaughn, who took over for Steve Nash less than one month ago, is already calling out his players’ effort.

“We’ll play the guys who want to play hard,” he said after the loss, which dropped the Nets to 8-10.

Simmons, as he said, does appear to be in a good place. That’s the good news for the Nets. What should scare them is that their flaws remain the same and the losses are still there even with Simmons rediscovering his game.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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