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Ben Simmons Finally Clears Biggest Hurdle as a Brooklyn Net

Inside Ben Simmons' official return to Philadelphia as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.

PHILADELPHIA, PA — The Brooklyn Nets arrived at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday morning to begin preparing for their matchup against their Atlantic Division rival, the Philadelphia 76ers.

When the NBA released the 2022-2023 schedules, the late November matchup between the Sixers and the Nets was highlighted by many, considering it marked the official return of Ben Simmons, who couldn’t debut with the Nets last year after getting traded in February due to a season-ending back injury.

A couple of days prior to Simmons’ return to Philadelphia, the star guard claimed he knew exactly what to expect when he would take the floor on Tuesday night. Considering all of the drama that took place over the past year, Simmons understood there was going to be a lot of animosity toward him after he got a preview of what was to come last season.

There was no Philly-based media availability for Simmons during his return last year. Since he was ruled out in the early March matchup between the Sixers and the Nets at the Wells Fargo Center, Simmons was not obligated to address reporters.

In an attempt to give the former 76er as much privacy as possible, arena security near Brooklyn’s locker room would go as far as prohibiting any media member walking by to take their phones out to avoid picture-taking or filming Simmons in the tunnel before he took the court for a pregame workout.

Simmons stayed as silent as possible throughout the remainder of the 2021-2022 season last year, but now that he’s mentally in a better place than he was a year ago, the three-time All-Star was ready to take the heat from anybody throwing some his way on Tuesday night.

“It feels good to be back,” said a smiling Simmons before his morning workout. “It does feel good to be back. I’m ready to go. I’m locked in. For us, it's not about, you know, everything else that's going on. It's about us competing against the opposition in Philadelphia. So, we're here to get a win, and that's priority. So, we got to stay locked in. I have to — If we want to be a great team — I got to do that. That’s on me to do that. It will be a lot, but I gotta do that as a leader of the team.”

Following the shootaround, Simmons and the Nets took a trip back to the team’s hotel for a few hours. After getting some rest, Simmons was back at the Wells Fargo Center for the second time on Tuesday. The difference this time around was that when Simmons takes the court for another pregame warmup, he’d have to do it in front of a crowd.

Simmons didn’t receive a warm welcome when he took the court pregame, but it was mild compared to last year. The hostile environment after a multi-month holdout from the Sixers resulted in the former Philly All-Star taking the floor, getting a quick shooting session in, then immediately exiting.

On Tuesday, Simmons spent extra time in the arena bowl greeting fans before going back to the locker room and getting into his game uniform.

“It was just nice to see,” said Simmons. “I have support in Philadelphia still, and lifelong fans that support me still. That was cool to see. That's a nice feeling. You know, I think I did some things in Philadelphia that can be respected and appreciated. I don't think we all had a bad time. It was good to have moments like that.”

Simmons’ feel-good moment following warmups wouldn’t last very long. A little under an hour after heading back to the locker room, he was back out on the floor, ready to play on the Wells Fargo Center court for the first time since the infamous Game 7 matchup against the Atlanta Hawks during the 2021 playoffs.

Simmons heard it from the crowd, but it didn’t meet his expectations.

“I thought it was gonna be louder,” he said with a smirk after the game.

Unaffected by the fact he was booed every time he got his hands on the ball, Simmons did all he could to block out the boos and the chants aimed at him. 

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“[The crowd] wasn’t out there on the floor,” Simmons explained. “I didn’t think they were gonna be an issue either way. Obviously, it was loud in there or whatever, and the chants, but for me, I just had to focus on playing the game and trying to make the right plays for my teammates.”

The three-time All-Star got off to a solid start by scoring four points and four assists in eight minutes. Simmons also looked to get his free throw jitters out of the way early as he took a trip to the charity stripe and buried both of his shots. On his way back to the other end of the court, Simmons did a Michael Jordan shrug to lighten the moment for himself.

“[It was] nothing,” Simmons said. “It's basketball. You know, we are people too, and we have emotions. This is fun, you know, trying to enjoy the game at the same time.”

By the end of the first half, Simmons had nine points, five assists, three rebounds, two steals, and one block. While he was doing a bit of everything, his contributions weren’t enough for the Nets to enter halftime with a lead over the undermanned 76ers.

Brooklyn hoped Simmons’ playmaking could help them get out in front and pull away from the Sixers in the second half. Therefore, Simmons played the entire third quarter, racking up six assists while the Nets outscored Philly 25-22. Still, it wasn’t enough for the Nets to enter the fourth quarter in the lead.

The Nets have multiple closers rostered, but outside of Kyrie Irving, they didn’t have anybody who had it going late in the game on Tuesday night.

While the fourth quarter was a perfect opportunity for Simmons to make his anticipated return to Philly really count, the former Sixer put on a rather familiar performance in the fourth quarter as he attempted zero shots in his final five minutes on the court. 

Meanwhile, on the other end, Sixers forward Tobias Harris helped lead the Sixers with ten points in his final ten minutes, while De’Anthony Melton, Shake Milton, and Paul Reed each collected at least five points to help the Sixers outscore the Nets 30-24 in the fourth quarter and put Brooklyn away with an upset 115-106 victory.

“[We gave up] way too many threes,” Simmons said of the Nets, who allowed the Sixers to drain 50 percent of their deep shots. “I think defensively, we didn’t cover our matchups. They ran a few plays for Tobias consistently, where we didn’t make any changes. We looked like we were a little tired, sluggish, or whatever it was. I don’t know what it was. We got to be better in terms of energy coming into games.”

The Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and James Harden-less Sixers stunned the Nets and spoiled Simmons’ homecoming. While the former first-overall pick didn’t get the results he wanted, he felt good checking off a critical box as he attempts to find the best version of himself in Brooklyn.

“I feel like I'm in a good place, you know, for me to come in here and just play basketball,” Simmons said after the game. “I’m happy. I'm doing what I love, so to be out there and have that experience was amazing. Obviously, it wasn't the result we wanted, especially to lose a game like that. But you know, I think it's a good step forward.”

Simmons got his first real return to Philadelphia out of the way. While the hostility from the South Philly crowd might ease up each and every time he returns to the Wells Fargo Center, Simmons doesn’t believe he’ll receive a warm welcome from Sixers fans as long as he’s in the league. 

“I think it’s gonna be like this forever,” he finished. “I don't really see it changing. I think it's, you know, every opportunity to go, you know, especially an experience like this to play in Philadelphia, I haven’t played here yet. So, obviously, it's one step in the right direction for me as a player, and I think it was a good experience.”

Simmons and the Nets will be back in Philly on January 25. That marks the second matchup between the 76ers and the Nets this season. Considering Simmons hasn’t faced the Sixers at full strength just yet, all eyes will be on the battle of star trios as Simmons, Irving, and Durant could realistically face Embiid, Maxey, and Harden a little over a month from now. 

Justin Grasso covers the Philadelphia 76ers for All76ers, a Sports Illustrated channel. You can follow him for live updates on Twitter: @JGrasso_.