The curious case of Benjamin Simmons is an endless source of fascination in and around the Nets. But it naturally gets even more attention when Simmons faces his former team, the 76ers.
Such was the situation on Wednesday night, when the Nets visited Philadelphia and lost a 137-133 shootout on the front end of a back-to-back that concludes against the Pistons in Brooklyn on Thursday night.
Simmons seemed hesitant to shoot early, then produced a 10-point third quarter during which he looked like his old 76ers self. Then he found himself on the bench for the final 8:57 of the game.
He finished with 12 points (on 5-for-7 shooting from the field), five rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes, with a team-worst plus-minus of minus-16.
Coach Jacque Vaughn said he did not deploy Simmons down the stretch because the Nets were behind and needed to maximize their shooting firepower.
The strategy nearly worked, with the Nets shooting 64.5% from the field, which according to ESPN was the best for a losing team in an NBA game in 42 years.
But moving forward, the Nets would love to have a confident and productive Simmons in the mix as they await Kevin Durant’s return from a knee injury sometime next month.
Simmons admitted that in the first half he was looking to pass too often, in the process passing up opportunities to attack the basket.
“Trying to find my guys way too much,” he said. “The first time we played them I think I ended up with 11 assists. Each game is going to be different. We don't have Kevin, so that was one of the major factors.”
Simmons said that teammate Patty Mills advised him that he had more time to operate near the basket than he thought.
“Obviously, still trying to get used to taking hits and getting to the rim and finishing,” said Simmons, who did not play last season during his time with the 76ers or after he was traded to the Nets. “Yeah, just take your time down there. I had more than I realized.”
Asked about sitting out the final minutes, Simmons said, “It is what it is. That’s Coach’s decision. I can't really control that. Obviously for myself, I want to be out there.”
He added, “If we're winning I have no problem with it. But if we’re losing, then I’ve got an issue with it.”
Vaughn said Simmons and everyone else on the team will be expected to play hard at all times, not some.
“Depending on you to do your job every single night, every single possession,” the coach said. “Ben showed more ability to play with force in the second half, which paid off, which is what we need.”
The Nets are 2-5 without Durant entering Thursday night. The hope is that this stretch will give other players chances to elevate their games, which could pay dividends down the road.
Simmons is high on that list. He has shown flashes of what the Nets need, but not consistently so.
Facing former teammate Joel Embiid for the first time was a good test. Simmons called it “fun.” Embiid scored 26 points but shot only 6-for-18 from the floor, guarded primarily by Nic Claxton.
Regarding Simmons’ aggressive burst, Vaughn said, “You become what you think about. So if you're thinking about being aggressive, you will be aggressive.
“If you think about being a good teammate, you'll be a good teammate. If you think about competing and playing hard, you do those things.”
Vaughn added, “We're going to get him to where each possession he has to be dealt with on both ends of the floor, where you feel him on both ends of the floor, and he imposes his will and has an impact on every single possession, which he has the ability to do.”
Said Kyrie Irving: “He just made a choice to put his head down and be aggressive for our team and we need him to do that. [He] came to the bench and we were just encouraging him as we do every day.
“When he’s aggressive like that, being Ben Simmons, then we look very, very good and it gives us opportunities that sometimes we don’t get if he’s not."
Durant, Irving: All-Star starters
Durant and Irving were named All-Star starters, making the Nets the only team with two players so honored.