PHILADELPHIA — The gamesmanship between Philadelphia and the Nets began long before tipoff Wednesday night.
At the morning shootaround, the 76ers Montrezl Harrell took a swipe at Nic Claxton, saying he wasn’t a player their defense worried about. Then, Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers waited until 30 minutes before tipoff to reveal that superstar Joe Embiid was going to play. Finally, fans at the Wells Fargo Center stood and booed as Ben Simmons led his Nets team onto the court before the game.
Wednesday’s game between the Nets and 76ers was no ordinary contest between two teams hoping to go deep in the Eastern Conference. Rather, it was almost a playoff-like atmosphere in this matchup with two teams with a recent history of disliking one another.
In the end, a Philadelphia team with all its healthy superstars proved to be just too much for a Nets team without Kevin Durant as the 76ers hung on to defeat the Nets, 137-133.
It was the sixth straight win for the 76ers, who were led by Tyrese Maxey’s 27 points and Joe Embiid’s 26 points and 10 rebounds.
The Nets (29-18) suffered their first loss in three games. They are now 2-5 since Durant went down with a knee injury that is expected to keep him out at least another two weeks.
Kyrie Irving led the Nets with 30 points. Nic Claxton had 25 and grabbed 11 rebounds.
“I think we learned a lot about this team tonight,” Irving said. “We obviously wanted to win, but we battled.”
The game was the first time Simmons faced off against the 76ers, his former team, with both James Harden and Embiid in the lineup.
After going scoreless and 0-for-1 in the first half, Simmons came back strong in the second, finishing with 12 points, five rebounds and five assists. Almost all of those were in the third quarter as coach Jacque Vaughn chose not to play him down the stretch when he needed three pointers to get the Nets back into the game.
“You become what you think about. If you think about being aggressive, you become aggressive,” Vaughn said when asked what message he had given Simmons at the half.
Simmons said he didn’t want to come out of the game once he got rolling and clearly enjoyed going up against Embiid, a player he had a less-than-cozy relationship with when he played in Philadelphia.
“It was fun,” Simmons said of guarding Embiid. “I only did that a few times in practice when I was here.”
The Nets, who trailed by 17 in the third quarter, tied the score at 120 with 4:06 left. The game stayed tight and then Harden’s finger roll gave the 76ers a 135-131 lead. Yuta Watanabe then made a layup with 13.1 seconds remaining to keep the Nets in the game. But De’Anthony Melton made two free throws with 12.1 seconds left to pretty much seal the victory.
“I thought we had it,” Claxton said. “We fought. We fought. We were right there.”
The drama of it all seemed to get to Simmons early. Not only was he scoreless in the first half, missing his one attempt, in 16 minutes of play, he picked up three fouls and seemed reluctant to challenge Embiid under the rim.
Said Irving: “He made a choice to be aggressive in the second half. When he figures it out, he figures it out. We’re all seeing flashes.”
On paper, it’s fairly clear that the 76ers got the better of the trade that also sent Seth Curry to the Nets. Harden, after all, was averaging 21 points and 11.3 assists in his 30 games heading into Wednesday night. Simmons, meanwhile, has been inconsistent at best, does not start and his far from the No. 3 star that the team was hoping he could be.
Yet, as Irving alluded to recently, the Nets might have scored a big addition by subtraction when it came to the deal. Irving took a not-so-veiled shot at Harden when he noted that one big difference between this year’s Nets team and last year's is that the players in the locker room were all-in.
“We all wanted to win this game.”