Ben Simmons rounding into form, but Nets still struggling

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PHILADELPHIA — Just three years ago, the thought of Ben Simmons roaming the court at the Wells Fargo Center, making plays and wreaking havoc, would have been unthinkable. But there he was on Tuesday night, this time in a Brooklyn Nets uniform, standing out for doing just that and looking as close to his old self as he has all season.

He was pushing the ball and pressuring his former team’s defense, getting down 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. I was bouncing. It was fast. In all, Simmons accumulated 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-esque shrug.

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

“It’s really a mindset that we decide 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 to 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 shit. Twenty more shots than us and seven more 3-pointers. That’s the game.”

Simmons’ play was the one bright spot. It had been eight hundred and eighty-five days since he had last suited up for a game on Wells Fargo Center Court. You know the story. How, after a strange 2020 playoff run, one in which he stopped shooting the ball, which, depending on your perspective, contributed to or caused a second-round loss to the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, did insisting he never wore a Sixers uniform again. As Sixers head coach Doc Rivers and star Embiid criticized Simmons in their respective postgame press conferences, Simmons, at times citing mental health difficulties, refused to join to the team and asked for a trade, like the Sixers traded him for Harden, like a back injury. prevented Simmons from suiting up for the Nets during his stretch run last season, as he exited this season looking like his career might be headed for a cliffhanger.

But now Simmons seems to have turned a corner. This was the fourth game in a row where he looked close to his former All-Star self. The turnaround began two weeks ago in Sacramento, where Simmons, after dropping from the starting lineup, had 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 outing against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. He looks more explosive and athletic every game. For the first month of the season, he insisted it was his recovery from offseason back surgery and early season knee pain that was holding him back, but that in recent weeks he’s he has started to feel better, which he says has been the catalyst. for this turn For the first time in years, he seems confident and comfortable, even as he returns to Philadelphia, a city in which he knows he is not loved.

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

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

But it wasn’t all jokes, and he didn’t lean on humor to deflect tough questions. When asked what he remembers 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 loved Joe a lot too. Obviously. it didn’t work out, but you know, that’s life. Not everything works out in your favor.”

Simmons got a haircut after the team’s morning practice, then a little less than five hours later he walked the floor of the Wells Fargo Center, his first time out of a Sixers uniform. Most of the seats in the arena 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 nodding while dribbling a ball behind his legs. After the warm-up he signed autographs for the fans.

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

The Nets are in a similar spot. Simmons could be himself again, but the team doesn’t seem any closer to meeting their preseason expectations. Losing to a Sixers team missing their three best players is inexcusable. Vaughn, who replaced Steve Nash less than a month ago, is already calling out the effort from his players.

“We’re going to play whoever wants to play hard,” he said after the loss, which dropped the Nets to 8-10.

Simmons, as he said, seems to be in a good place. This is the good news for the Nets. What should scare them is that his flaws are still 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 Closing in on the top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the boldest run in professional sports history. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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