CAMDEN, NJ -- Ben Simmons’s return? James Harden versus Kyrie Irving? A hyped-up battle of the two elite teams who dominated the headlines with their blockbuster deadline trade a month ago?
According to 76ers coach Doc Rivers, his team didn’t address any of this in their practice Wednesday.
"We didn’t even mention tomorrow one time today," said Rivers, whose team hosts the Nets at Wells Fargo Center Thursday night. "Tomorrow’s gonna come and we’re gonna play Brooklyn and there will be a lot said about it and then it’s gonna go and it’s over. There’s no trophy given after the game. There’s nothing given except that there’s gonna be a game and it’s obviously a different game, obviously, with what’s going on, but as far as the basketball part of it, we have to focus on that."
While Rivers was talking, however, there were a few signs that the team knows that this is far from just another game.
The biggest indication was that Harden, the player whom the Nets swapped for Simmons, was the last person left on the practice court as he hit jumper after jumper long after the rest of his teammates had left for the weight room or showers.
Harden, who did not speak to the media, has been nothing short of spectacular since forcing his way out of Brooklyn. The 76ers are 5-0 with Harden on the floor and in those five games he has averaged 24.6 points and 12.4 assists.
Simmons hasn’t played all season. After feuding with Rivers and some of his teammates, Simmons did not play for the 76ers, saying he was not mentally ready. Now he is said to be bothered by a sore back that happened when he tried to build up his conditioning post trade in Brooklyn.
Simmons, however, will be on the Nets bench Thursday and you can bet he will be hearing it from the never-docile 76ers fans. Despite the fact that Simmons helped lead the 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, what fans seem to remember most was his poor play in Game 7 of last year’s second round playoff loss to Atlanta followed by his refusal to play this year.
It seems a few of the current 76ers remember that, too.
"We have who we have in this locker room and we are happy with who we have in this locker room," Georges Niang said after practice. "[Simmons] knows what he did or what he had to do to get himself right and whether that is right or wrong or indifferent, that’s not my place to speak on. Obviously, I have my thoughts on that.
"If he’s happy where he’s at, then let him be happy. We’re happy we have guys in this locker room who want to be here."
Even before the trade, there was some bad blood between the two teams. When these teams were last on the court together, Durant and Joel Embiid received taunting technical fouls in the final moments before Embiid waved the Nets off the Barclays Center floor after a Dec. 30 76ers win.
"We’ve had some interesting games against them," said Rivers, whose team is in second place in the East. "There’s been extra stuff on the floor. There will just be more of that. I think that’s good."