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 in the crowd for Simmons’ introduction, a smattering of boos clearly audible.
In the end, the Nets fell to a Sixers team that sat Joel Embiid and James Harden, the player sent to Philadelphia for Simmons. But preseason scores don’t count in the standings, and this one was no different. All anyone will remember is Simmons finally took the court for the Nets and started the work of getting in sync with his teammates.
“It’s great to take advantage of the opportunity for those guys to play together and keep developing the understanding between them; but you definitely also don’t want to overdo it,” coach Steve Nash said. “The goal is for everyone to land safely on opening night, and if they’re able to get a bunch of minutes in together, that’s a bonus.”
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 perceived bench played the second half, when the Sixers pulled away again.
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.
“Ben has been awesome. He’s an incredible player,” Joe Harris said. “He’s been out, so people — not that you forget about Ben Simmons, but you don’t really talk about him quite as much. But when he plays, he’s [an] All-Star-caliber player. He’s such a versatile basketball player where in today’s NBA he’s 1-through-5, can play every position, guard position, which is a luxury not a lot of teams have.”
Simmons’ first bucket in 470 days 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.
After an Irving turnover led to De’Anthony Melton’s floating bank shot, the Nets found themselves in a 55-35 hole with 8:13 left in the half.
The Nets’ transition game and early offense sparked a rally, and they 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.
The deficit was three at the half, and Kessler Edwards’ 3 off a Chris Chiozza feed gave the Nets an 82-81 lead. But it was short lived, as Philadelphia pulled away.
Edmond Sumner showed well with 12 points off the bench.