Ben Simmons made his long-delayed Nets debut in Monday’s preseason opener. They didn’t get the win, but they finally got something much better — a healthy Big 3.
After Simmons missed all of last season with mental health woes and a bad back, and Kyrie Irving’s stance against the COVID-19 vaccine limited him to just 29 games, the pair finally took the court with Kevin Durant.
The Nets lost, 127-108, to Philadelphia, the team from which Simmons had forced a deadline-day trade. The 76ers’ proximity might explain the mixed reaction to his introduction, a smattering of boos audible in the crowd of 13,250 at Barclays Center. But they didn’t dim his megawatt smile, or the mood behind it.
“Amazing. I’m grateful just to be able to step on a NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there,” Simmons said after his first game in 470 days. “I thought I’d be nervous, but I wasn’t nervous: I was excited. To have that feeling to be able to come out and know you’re going to play on a NBA floor especially at Barclays with some great players, it’s excitement.”
The Nets’ Big 3 all logged roughly 19 minutes, none in the second half. Looking rustier than the Titanic debris, Brooklyn trailed by 20 in the second quarter before cutting it to three at the break. The 76ers pulled away without Joel Embiid or James Harden, but scores matter little in the preseason, and Monday’s won’t matter at all.
The only thing anybody will remember was Simmons finally suiting up for the Nets, and their new Big 3 finally starting the work of getting in sync.
“Anytime anybody comes back, it’s going to take some time,” Irving said. “He’s going to love playing with us. … But for him to be out there for his first game, and for us to experience it with him, it’s something we can remember for the rest of the season, and it’s something we got through. This is Day 1, highly anticipated. I’m glad it went his way on some easy baskets, and he made some great plays. But obviously, he knows he has a ways to go before he gets to feeling like his true self.”
Durant had a team-high 13 points, four rebounds and four assists in 18:42, while Irving added nine points, four assists, four boards and three steals over the same span.
Simmons, who hadn’t played since his 76ers were knocked out of the playoffs by the Hawks on June 20, 2021, was predictably more of a mixed bag. He had six points, a team-high five assists and four rebounds. But he finished a minus-10, missed both of his free-throw attempts and didn’t attempt a 3-pointer. Still, to say this small baby step will end up being a huge leap forward is understating how vital his return to the court is for the Nets.
“It was fun messing up because I know how good we can be,” Simmons said. “And seeing different looks and opportunities there and working with Kevin and Ky and Joe [Harris], seeing where they want the ball and how things are going to work in the flow. The only way you’re going to learn is by making mistakes. So I had a few out there. I can go and watch film and say I know what I did wrong and how to fix that. It’s all a learning process for me, so it’s good.”
Simmons’ first bucket was a fast-break dunk off an Irving bounce pass with 9:16 left in the first quarter. He backed that up with a great defensive play 1 ¹/₂ minutes later, chasing down speedy Philadelphia guard Matisse Thybulle in transition to turn what looked like a wide-open layup into a turnover.
But the Nets’ failings guarding the arc were still prevalent. They allowed 14 of Tyrese Maxey’s game-high 20 points in a first quarter that saw them trail, 42-26. It reached 55-35 with 8:13 left in the half.
The Nets reeled off 15 unanswered points. By the time Simmons found Nic Claxton (12 points on 6-for-6 shooting), they had cut the lead to 55-50.
Kessler Edwards’ 3 off a Chris Chiozza feed gave the Nets an 82-81 lead. But it was short lived, as Philadelphia pulled away.
The Nets allowed just 41.1 percent shooting — just 36.6 percent overall and 23.3 percent from deep after the first quarter. But they got outrebounded, 55-43, against Embiid-less Philadelphia. Worse, they had 27 turnovers leading to 33 points while getting just 16 off the Sixers’ miscues.
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