Ben Simmons, a leading candidate for defensive player of the year, took several deft swipes at the Nets before their Eastern Conference showdown with the 76ers Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
Simmons is tired of hearing about the Big 3 and the Nets’ talent. So tired, in fact, that the 76ers’ 6-10 point forward practically rolled his eyes at the notion that the Nets are the 76ers’ top rivals.
"Obviously, Brooklyn has a lot of talent, but there’s only one ball and you do have to play defense," Simmons said.
Ouch. Defense has been the Nets’ Achilles’ heel all season. Entering Wednesday night, they were allowing opponents an average of 114.1 points. Only the lowly Wizards have given up more points per game among Eastern Conference teams.
The 76ers, by contrast, are holding teams to an average of 108.3 points, third best in the East and sixth overall in the NBA.
Simmons is considered by most to be the best perimeter defender in the NBA. His 1.6 steals per game is ranked 10th in the league and he was an all-defensive first-team selection last season after leading the team in steals.
Despite the fact that the 76ers and Nets entered Wednesday’s game tied at the top of the standings with 37-17 records, Simmons pooh-poohed the notion that there is a fierce rivalry between the two teams.
"Rivalry? If they keep the same team definitely, but it’s going to be hard to do that," Simmons said Tuesday. "We are going for the past champs, the Lakers. They were the ones who won the championship. You have to give respect to them."
Double ouch. The Lakers, you may recall, rolled over the Nets, 126-101, on Saturday. That has caused some to declare that the Nets are overrated. The fact that Simmons brought them up definitely was a poke at Brooklyn.
As much as Simmons wanted to downplay the rivalry, the truth is there was a lot at stake in Wednesday night’s game. With less than 20 games left on the schedule, the Nets and the 76ers entered tied at the top of the conference standings with 37-17 records entering their final matchup of the regular season.
The two teams split their first two games with the 76ers blowing a golden opportunity in the ninth game of the season. The Nets were missing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in that game plus James Harden hadn’t been acquired yet. Instead, it was Caris LeVert and Joe Harris who led the Nets to that 122-109 win.
Wednesday’s winner not only gained a full game in the standings, but won the tiebreaker as well.
In this season, the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 could be significant as the Eastern Conference basically has three true contenders — the 76ers, the Nets and Milwaukee. While the No. 1 seed currently would play the winner of the series between the Hawks and the Heat in the second round, the No. 2 seed would likely get the Bucks in that round.
Wednesday’s game could also be viewed as another golden opportunity for the 76ers as the Nets were missing both Harden and Durant, two-thirds of the Big 3. Harden will likely be out for a while with a hamstring injury. Durant, who is easing back from his own hamstring injury, was rested after playing 27 minutes in a rescheduled game against the Timberwolves on Tuesday.
Nets coach Steve Nash said the priority for his team is being healthy at the end of the season.
"It would be great to have the No. 1 seed; I think it means a lot, it’s valuable," he said. "But not at the expense of losing players or prolonging our injury situation."