Ben Simmons is rounding into form, but the Nets are still struggling

PHILADELPHIA — Just three years ago, the idea of ​​Ben Simmons running around the Wells Fargo Center court, making plays and wreaking havoc wouldn’t have been remarkable. 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 former self as he has all season.

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

Simmons looked great. But his Nets didn’t. Their effort was poor, especially in defence. They allowed the Philadelphia 76ers, who were without James Harden, Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, to make half of their 32 attempts from deep and grab 20 offensive rebounds. The Nets shot a scorching 55 percent from the field — thanks in part to Simmons’ performance — but also took 19 fewer shots than the Sixers. The switches on their screens were lazy, their spins slow, their boxes non-existent. The result: a 115-106 Sixers win.

“It’s really a mindset that we decide we’re going to play defense,” Nets coach Zach Vaughn told reporters after the game. “The amount of mistakes we had at halftime was confusing for this group. We had to stop the tape because we didn’t have enough time to show it all.”

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

Simmons’ play was the lone bright spot. Eight hundred and eighty-five days had passed since he had last competed in a game on Wells Fargo Center Court. You know the story. How, after a strange 2020 playoff run where he stopped shooting the ball, which — depending on your point of view — either contributed to or led to a second-round loss to the low-seeded Atlanta Hawks, he insisted he would never put in a Sixers uniform again. How Sixers coach Doc Rivers and star Embiid criticized Simmons in their respective postgame press conferences, how Simmons, at times citing mental health issues, refused to join the team and asked for a trade, how the Sixers traded him for Harden, how a back injury kept 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 for a cliffhanger.

But Simmons now seemed to be turning a corner. This was the fourth straight game where he looked close to his former All-Star self. The turnaround 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 22-point performance Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies. He looks more explosive and athletic every game. He insisted during the first month of the season that it was his recovery from off-season back surgery and early-season knee pain that was holding him back, but that, in recent weeks, he’s started to feel better, which he says , was the catalyst. for this reversal. For the first time in years, he looks confident and comfortable, even when he’s back in Philadelphia, a city where he knows he’s not loved.

“I feel like I’m in a good place,” Simmons said after the loss. “I’m happy 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 during his first game against his former team, Simmons looked relaxed. He spent his morning media interview joking around with reporters. When asked by Howard Eskin, one of Philadelphia and the city’s most famous sportswriters the most vocal and consistent Simmons critic, what he remembers about his time in Philadelphia, Simmons replied, “I remember you yelling at me a lot.” The two later posed for a selfie, that Simmons posted on Instagram. When asked what he thought it would be like to see Embiid, who Simmons said he hasn’t spoken to since the 2021 playoffs, Simmons replied, “We’re going to do our secret handshake.”

But it wasn’t all funny, and he didn’t have the 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 in your favor.”

Simmons got a haircut after the team’s morning practice and then just under five hours later strolled the Wells Fargo Center floor, his first time out of a Sixers uniform. Most of the seats in the arena were empty. The building was quiet. Simmons found a place next to Nets coach Jacque Vaughn. The two chatted for 10 minutes, with Simmons tossing a ball behind his feet, waving. 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 it would be louder,” Simmons said after the game. Maybe if Embiid played, the emotions on the floor would be different, and people would catch on, but for now the Sixers and their fans have other concerns. When will Embiid return? When will Harden do? Will the two manage to find chemistry?

The Nets are in a similar position. Simmons may be back to his old self, but the team doesn’t appear to be any closer to living up to its preseason expectations. Losing to a Sixers team without their three best players is inexcusable. Vaughn, who took over for Steve Nash less than a month ago, is already getting his players going.

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

Simmons, that said, seems to be in a good spot. 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 an author Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Process in Professional Sports History. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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