PHILADELPHIA – Ben Simmons has had nothing but good things to say about Philadelphia and its fans ahead of his playing return to the Wells Fargo Center in a Nets uniform on Tuesday night.
Simmons continued the glad-handing in a big way before the game when he signed autographs and posed for selfies with early-arriving fans after his pregame workout.
Still, Simmons knew what was coming – boos – and the Philly faithful didn’t disappoint, booing him when he was introduced and when he touched the ball.
“He should embrace it, enjoy it,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “It’s a part of sports. Philly, they have great fans and what I want to see is his teammates have his back, embrace him, enjoy this moment. You get to hoop in front of people who cheered for you, against you. Just hoop, man.”
Simmons refused to hoop for the 76ers last season because of back and mental health issues and was traded to the Nets in February. Injuries kept him from playing for the Nets, too.
Last March 10, Simmons sat on the bench in street clothes as the Nets blew out the 76ers in his first return to Philadelphia.
Tuesday was different. Simmons has been playing his best basketball in two years. After missing four games with a knee injury and getting eased back in off the bench, Simmons started at center on Sunday and scored 22 points with eight rebounds and five assists in a 127-115 win over Memphis.
On Tuesday, Simmons started alongside Nic Claxton, who missed Sunday’s game for what the club called personal reasons. Claxton was then listed as questionable for Tuesday with a “non-COVID illness” before getting cleared to play.
Simmons opened the game by assisting on the first three baskets — two for Claxton, one for Kyrie Irving — as the Nets took a 6-0 lead.
Philly fans had been looking forward to seeing Simmons match up with former teammate Joel Embiid, but Embiid was out with a foot injury. The 76ers were also without the injured James Harden and Tyrese Maxey.
Simmons, though, didn’t expect to have an easy time of it even without the trio of 76ers stars on the floor.
“I think the fans will make up for it,” Simmons said.
Simmons was upbeat before the game. He answered questions about returning to Philadelphia on Sunday night and then again on Tuesday morning as the Philadelphia media dug deeply into his relationship with Embiid.
To say the two are no longer close is probably an understatement. Simmons said he has spoken to some of his former teammates leading into this game, but Embiid was not one of them.
“Nah,” Simmons said. “I mean, you’re not cool with everybody. You are not texting everybody. I mean, there’s certain people that you don’t talk to all the time. I have friends that I don’t talk to all the time, but we’re still cool. But that’s how life went.
“We had a lot of highlights and we had a lot of great times. I got a lot of love for Joel, too. Obviously, it didn’t work out, but that’s life and not everything works out in your favor. So I wish him the best -- obviously not a championship against us -- but the best.”
Sixers coach Doc Rivers was mostly concerned with fielding a full team for Tuesday’s game to go up against not just Simmons, but also Kevin Durant and Irving.
Irving was playing in his second game since the Nets ended his eight-game suspension.
“Ben is playing terrific the last few games,” Rivers said. “He’s played really well. KD’s pretty, good, too. We’re going to mention him, too, and Kyrie is back. Seth [Curry] with his shooting and Joe Harris. I mean, they have a bunch of flame-throwers. The natural competitiveness from Ben will be there. The natural competitiveness from his teammates will be there. That’s just natural.”