Arguably the best player in the world was asked about Ben Simmons’ breakout performance, and summed it up with one word.
Actually the same word twice.
“Incredible,” Nets star Kevin Durant gushed, then circled back for more. “Incredible. I mean, I’m just happy for him, because he’s been trying to get his form back, trying to figure his rhythm out.”
After missing all of last season and struggling through the start of this season — losing his starting job and being relegated to the bench — Simmons followed up his first solid performance Tuesday in Sacramento with a genuine breakthrough outing two nights later in a 109-107 win in Portland.
“I think he did a good job of just talking up, commanding the offense, commanding the team on the defensive side of the ball,” Durant continued. “He was incredible, so we’re going to keep building on that. … He controlled the game and was able to get us back into it.”
To say it was an auspicious sign for the Nets would be like calling a life raft useful to a drowning man. The Nets have needed something — anything — from Simmons, and these two games are the first inkling that he’s still capable of providing it.
“I’m getting there. I’m building. I’m getting there day by day,” Simmons said, going back to the mantra he’s used all season. Against the Kings and Trail Blazers, Simmons looked more spry physically and played more aggressively, willing to attack even if the attack failed.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” he said. “People seem like I had a sprained ankle. I had back surgery. That’s not easy to come back from. So I take it day by day. I stay locked in and focused, and continue to build myself, my body and my game.”
Spring in his step
That back surgery — a microdiscectomy in May to fix a herniated L-4 disk — came after Simmons missed all of last season. He sat out in Philadelphia citing mental health issues, and never got back on the floor for the Nets after he was acquired at the steep price of former MVP James Harden, a three-time NBA scoring champ.
Many Nets fans grumbled at Simmons’ unavailability. And when he finally made his debut this season, they were vexed by the three-time All-Star’s play. Even some of his teammates have whispered privately, a major topic at a team meeting during which veteran leader Markieff Morris reportedly critiqued Simmons’ play.
Simmons says his back is fine now, but he missed four straight games due to a swollen left knee — and then sat out Sunday’s loss at the Lakers with the same issue.
“He sat out the Laker game because his knee wasn’t feeling right, and really give him credit for doing the exercises, doing the treatment to be able to play the next two games,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “Now the consistency part continues, but the big part of it is just feeling good.”
Since his return, he’s looked like a new man. Or perhaps more accurately, like his old self.
On Thursday, he had 15 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, and provided versatile, switchy defense guarding one-through-five over 32 minutes. The points, boards and minutes were season highs, as was his aggression level.
“It just gives us all confidence,” Durant said. “Look how many wide-open shots we got: Royce [O’Neale] got a lot of wide-open 3s, Joe [Harris] started getting some 3s, Yuta [Watanabe] got some 3s, Seth [Curry] got some shots. Ben just getting downhill making plays, and you combine that with Royce’s 11 assists, myself who can create a little bit off the dribble, just gives us more weapons out there on the floor.”
Pushing the ball and creating open 3-point looks for others is what Simmons has done best. Well, that and defend. Thursday bodes well in both regards.
“Yeah, it’s very encouraging, most minutes he’s played, really responded well,” said Vaughn, who benched Simmons partly to separate him from starting center Nic Claxton.
“He had a few combinations with Nic, without Nic, pushing the basketball as a screener. So kind of what we envision, him doing everything for us. The defensive versatility of guarding [Jusuf Nurkic] and also Damian Lillard. A lot of people can’t do that.”
On the line
When Simmons came back from the sore knee to play at Sacramento, he was averaging 5.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists, all career lows. The Nets were outscored by an average of 4.8 points per game in Simmons’ minutes, worst on the team and 410th out of 455 NBA players.
And all of that paled in comparison to his woes at the free-throw line. Simmons — whose hesitancy to shoot free throws helped make him a pariah in Philadelphia — was shooting just 46.7 percent from the charity stripe, and hadn’t made a foul shot since Oct. 29, the night of the aforementioned team meeting.
But after having 11 points, five boards and three assists in the blowout loss to the Kings, he was far better in Portland. And when Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups went hack-a-Ben at a key moment with three minutes to play, Simmons calmly sank three of four free throws.
“We had no doubts when he walked up there,” Durant said. “We all were confident just the way his game was flowing and just how he was playing — everybody felt his energy to start the game. … We needed those.”
Simmons may have needed them more. The Nets may have said they were confident in him, but his own self-assurance has been flagging.
Simmons famously avoided contact in pivotal moments of the 76ers’ second-round playoff ouster by the Hawks in 2021, presumably for fear of being fouled. If he had any fear Thursday, he fought through it and controlled his nerves. Whether or not he turned a corner, it felt encouraging.
“For me, I love those moments,” Simmons said. “I’m not going to shy away. That was their plan. Obviously, it didn’t work. … I have my own back, my teammates have my back, the coaches.”
Durant said: “This is the type of game we all needed to see. I think everybody else on the outside, fans were loving it, couldn’t wait to see this type of performance on him. So we expect that from every night.”
Just for starters
To maximize Simmons every night, he needs to start. But with the way Claxton is defending in a career year, that means having two non-shooters on the floor — and the NBA is all about spacing. The Nets were minus-32 in the 75 minutes that Simmons and Claxton played together in the first four games of the season.
One of Vaughn’s first decisions after taking over as coach was to stagger their minutes, both due to Simmons’ lackluster play and to avoid having two non-shooters clogging the lane.
“The analytics spoke to us, and [the numbers said] the spacing just isn’t as good as when they’re separated,” Vaughn said. “So we have to figure out some solutions that way, because defensively if we can get Kevin and Nic and Ben on the floor at the same time, that’s a pretty big group with Royce also. That’s a lot of versatility, so we’re gonna continue to work through it. We saw [Thursday] there was some success, and we’ll continue to learn about it.”
Eventually the Nets will need Simmons — a former Defensive Player of the Year runner-up who is in the middle of a five-year contract — to return to the starting linuep. Until then, they need him to keep showing he’s worthy of it.