Ben Simmons showed up in an eventful return to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, not many of his teammates did.
Promoted back into the starting line-up, Simmons racked up 11 points, seven rebounds, 11 assists, two steals and three blocks and was active at both ends of the floor despite the Brooklyn Nets falling to an undermanned Sixers 115-106.
Simmons himself admitted earlier this week he ‘knows what’s coming’ when he makes his official on-court return to Wells Fargo Centre. And it came.
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The Aussie was showered by boos by the hostile crowd whenever he touched the ball wire to wire, and was cheered whenever he missed a shot. He even retaliated at times including signaling for fans to shush after making a put back shot.
It’s fair to say the crowd was most vocal whenever Simmons stepped to the free throw line — where he shot 3-of-6 —booing him loudly and trying to distract him behind the ring in any way possible.
The theatrics included Simmons and Kevin Durant also feuding with George Niang during a contest that had its tense moments.
“It‘s probably the most hostile environment he’s probably ever going to be in,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn told ESPN pre-game. ”And to get over this hurdle would be monumental to where he’s at right now and getting back to the form that he wants to get back to.”
Simmons, who copped a hostile response during his first return to Philadelphia in March while injured, has struggled in the early parts of the season at Brooklyn, leading to his relegation to the bench while also hampered by a knee issue.
However, he’s broken out his slump in recent games including putting up a season-best 22 points against Memphis on Monday while filling in as starting centre for Claxton, who was out for personal reasons.
After failing to score in double figures in any of his first nine games, Simmons has now scored 11, 15 and 22 and 11 points respectively over his last four appearances.
But the the Nets, who’ve turned around their slow start to the season and won six of their last nine games heading into Wednesday’s clash, fell to 8-10 on the season.
Even pre-game, Simmons received a mix response from fans when he came out to warm up, with some showing love and asking for photos and autographs, while others showed off unfriendly signs and mouthed off.
The general atmosphere before official tip off though was a stoic one, albeit with a limited crowd.
It came against a Philly team missing three of its starters in James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid to injury, with the latter’s absence to make for a much less spicier matchup given the unease between he Simmons.
Tobias Harris stepped up in their absence, overcoming an ankle setback early to record a game-high 24 points to go with six rebounds as Philadelphia improved to 9-8.
De’Anthony Melton (22 points, six triples), Shake Milton (16 points), George Niang (16 points, four triples) and Paul Reed (19 points, 10 rebounds, three steals, two blocks) also played well for the home side.
For Brooklyn, Kyrie Irving topscored with 23 points and Durant added 20.
Just like when he was announced as a starter, Simmons was met with loud boos from the Philly fans whenever he touched the ball early in the game.
But it clearly didn’t phase him, with Simmons dishing out three assists within the first three minutes to help get the Nets out to an early 10-2 lead, prompting a Philadelphia timeout.
Those boos only grew louder as Simmons went to the free throw line, but he calmly sank both shots to continue his promising start, before smiling and shrugging.
Philadelphia journalist Shamus Clancy tweeted: “A ‘f*** Ben Simmons’ chant goes on at the Wells Fargo Centre during a TV timeout.”
Philly came storming back into the game though through Shake Milton, who had seven points in the opening term, while the hosts knocked down a combined five triples to help out to a 33-26 lead.
Simmons had four points and four assists at the end of the opening period.
Former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy noted he didn’t think the Simmons reception was as bad as he thought it’d be from an infamously passionate fan base.
“I expected better from Philly, quite honestly. These boos aren’t that loud or prolonged, this is not a good night from the Sixers as far as boos. I’ve heard better,” he said on ESPN.
The Aussie carried his strong form in the second term with an emphatic rejection before finishing the play at the other end by throwing down a rim rattling jam.
“This is what Ben Simmons can do … he can get it done on both ends of the floor, one of the best two-way players in the game,” Van Gundy added.
But the Sixers remained in control of the game including extending their lead to double digits early in the second after Furkan Korkmaz’s free throw.
Turnovers however became an issue for Doc Rivers’ side as Brooklyn capitalised at the other end, with Kyrie Irving’s three-pointer halfway through the term cutting its deficit to 38-42.
Seth Curry got hot late in the second, knocking down back-to-back triples to tie the scores at 50-50.
The theatrics continued late in the period, with Simmons making a layup and signaling for the crowd to shush.
He and George Niang got tangled up inside the forward minute, with the latter called for a flagrant foul as the Aussie went to to the free throw line.
Simmons received an even more hostile reaction this time including a Bronx cheer when he missed the first shot before making the second.
Simmons capped off his solid first half with a big defensive play, stealing the ball off De’Anthony Melton diving to knock a loose ball to Kevin Durant up ahead for a dunk.
“Simmons gets to the floor, knocks it to Durant up ahead then stares down the Philadelphia bench. Getting spicy out here now,” ESPN commentator Brian Anderson said.
But the Sixers had the last laugh of the first half, with Melton nailing a three-pointer to extend their lead to 63-57.
Simmons finished the half with nine points, three rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block.
“I’m proud of Ben Simmons,” NBA legend Shaquille O‘Neal said on ESPN at half-time.
We talked about him stepping up to the challenge and embracing what was going to happen. He’s playing with great energy.
“They (Brooklyn) came out 6-0 and Ben was a vital part of that … this is what he does, he’s pushing the ball and he’s into the game.
“Moving the pall and passing it, that’s what he does … he’s good now.
“The fan are talking noise after he misses, you tell the fans to shut the hell up. I’m proud of Ben, the way he’s playing.”
Philly was faced with an injury scare early in the third as Tobias Harris exited the game with an ankle concern and went down to the rooms, however he soon returned to the bench.
Simmons again went to the free throw line, but this time missed both shots to, as expected, receive a loud cheers from Sixers fans.
There was added motivation for the cheers for Simmons misses, with it giving the Philly faithful free Chick-fil-A.
Niang stayed in the thick of it in the third, chirping off with Durant this time and scoring five of his 16 points in the period.
“Niang having a big night and has a lot to say about it. Jawing with Durant and Simmons and then knocks down a big three. Niang providing scoring and a great deal of competitiveness,” Van Gundy said.
Both sides kept trading blows in an entertaining third period, with Durant leading the Nets and Harris shaking off any injury concerns to lead Philly.
Simmons stayed active including putting on a passing display. He had 11 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists at the end of the third — just three boards short of a triple-double — while providing several second-chance opportunities with knock ons from missed shots.
But it was Philly that had the answers early in the fourth, playing with more hustle at both ends of the floor behind Melton and Paul Reed.
Melton’s tip in extended Philadelphia’s lead to 96-87 with 8:10 left in the game.
Harris stayed hot down the stretch, hitting a straight on triple and 10-foot jumper within a couple of minutes to open up a 102-89 Sixers lead.
The Sixers kept pushing down the stretch as Brooklyn struggled to get stops, with the home team more active at both ends of the floor.
“Time and time again the offensive board has killed Brooklyn,” WNBA player Candace Parker said on ESPN.
Milton’s tip shot extended Philly’s lead to 111-97 with 3:10 left, prompting Nets coach Jacque Vaughn to pull his starters and waive the white flag.