Ben Simmons shines in trade for Philadelphia, but Nets drops to 76ers

PHILADELPHIA – With the entire arena rioting against him, Ben Simmons stepped to the free throw line in the first quarter Tuesday night and prepared to fire the first of two shots.

As he dribbled, Sixers fans around Wells Fargo Center stood up and jeered him. Others pulled out their phones to document their whereabouts as they harassed one of Philadelphia’s greatest sports villains in recent history.

Simmons, a career free-throw 60 percent, knocked down both shots to silence the crowd. As he walked off the field, all he could do was shrug his shoulders at his haters — a move popularized by Michael Jordan.

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

In Simmons’ highly anticipated 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. This season, the Nets have played at times with Simmons toughening them up as he played back in shape. In Philly it was the opposite.

“I thought he was in attack mode,” Jacque Vaughn said of Simmons. “He was aggressive. Showed a lot of balance throughout the night. Competed on both sides. I thought the experience for him to come through and get behind him was really good overall.

In his past four games, Simmons has averaged 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 of the game. He attacked the basket. He was talking nonsense about the Sixers bench. Vaughn ripped his team’s approach and effort after the game, but Simmons didn’t fit that profile.

“We’re never going to win games if we don’t play hard every night every possession,” said Vaughn. “It’s that simple. We play against the guys who want to play hard.”

When Kyrie Irving returned Monday from his eight-game suspension against the Grizzlies, the idea was that 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 and the Nets defeated a Grizzlies team without Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jars Jackson Jr. The Sixers had their injured trio unavailable for Tuesday’s game featuring Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. That didn’t stop Tobias Harris from scoring 24 points to carry the Sixers over the nets in a tough loss to start a back-to-back. They play in Toronto on Wednesday. The Raptors will be without Pascal Siakam.

“They consistently played for Tobias a few times and we didn’t make any changes,” Simmons said. “It looked like we were kind of tired or just sluggish or whatever it was. I don’t know what it was, but you know, we need to do better on the energy front.”

During this morning’s shooting, Simmons did not overlook 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 had a back injury, the bickering started in the morning at the team hotel, where a fan stormed the point guard he once cheered on on his way to the bus. That fan was tackled by security. At the game, fans showed up in clown costumes and donned his jersey. But despite being completely sane, the Sixers were blown out by the Simmon-less Nets.

Tuesday was subdued in some ways. The arena was not sold out, but more than half full. Simmons led the Nets onto the field with Patty Mills, his fellow Australian and old friend close behind. That’s how the shouting started. Simmons was harassed every time he touched the ball. In his pregame press conference, Vaughn referenced the movie “Old School,” saying, “This is a Vince Vaughn earmuffs night tonight… way.” A few “F-Ben Simmons” chants could be heard throughout the game, but his playing helped combat it.

His passing was accurate, leading to eight early runs from Nic Claxton. Later, Durant found Simmons on a baseline cut for a reverse layup. And he showed his two-way skills by blocking Georges Niang, picking up the pace and finishing with a dunk. Simmons said that since he wasn’t playing against the fans, he didn’t expect them to be a problem. In fact, he had expected worse.

“I thought it would be louder,” Simmons said.

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

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

“It was just fun to watch,” Simmons said of the positive interactions. “You know, still have support in Philadelphia, and lifelong fans, they 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 was permanently expelling a demon by playing against the Sixers. He has yet to play against Embiid, who swung Durant off his own floor and rallied fans to his cause after a battle with Karl-Anthony Towns. What would he have in store if he and Simmons had to face off?

“I think it will be forever,” Simmons said. “I mean, I don’t really see that changing.”

But his return meant another hurdle had been passed. Simmons is finally in a groove and the Nets core is all available – the latter of which has been a rarity in Brooklyn for the past three years. The runway to get back on track is there. Now they have to take advantage of that.

(Photo of Ben Simmons of the Brooklyn Nets playing against the 76ers in Philadelphia: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

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