By Tommy Matthews
Five hundred and eighty-three nights after Ben Simmons gave up on the Sixers and their fans, the massively overrated Simmons returned to the Wells Fargo Center and was no match for Joel Embiid.
The 76ers won 137-133 victory over the Brooklyn Nets — though the score was a mere backdrop to the ongoing drama surrounding Simmons and Embiid finally facing one another.
“Nothing,” said Embiid, when asked about how it felt going up against Simmons for the first time.
“Just, like every single night, [I am trying to] just freaking kill whoever is in front of me. My mentality is always about scoring. If I get doubled, make the right pass, but if I get played one-on-one, or I see an opportunity to go score, I’m going to go score.”
Just a minute into the game, Embiid aggressively posted up Simmons — the first of three post-ups he would attempt to execute on his former teammate.
And while none of them turned into a basket — he missed a shot, got stripped and was fouled, respectively — it set the tone for how the night would play out, with the crowd roaring for each of them.
😤 https://t.co/Dl8ZhQMxRU pic.twitter.com/l5wE692UPK
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) January 26, 2023
“The first play, Ben is guarding Joel and it was like it was a party,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said later with a laugh. “It was hilarious. That’s when I turned to our coaches and said, ‘This is a boxing crowd tonight. They want to see them drop the basketball, turn and duke it out.’
“And [Simmons and Embiid] went at each other, which is fun and good.”
It had been 583 days since the two former co-stars had been on this — or any — court together. That day — Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks — is infamously remembered in these parts not only because Philadelphia lost, but because of how it did. It is specifically remembered for Simmons passing up an open dunk in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
Someone without any context about Wednesday’s game would have understandably been mistaken for believing it, too, was a playoff contest. Any time Simmons got the ball, a wall of noise was hurled in his direction — just as it was whenever he and Embiid were matched up against one another in any context.
But that energy extended far beyond the two former co-stars and helped lead to a combined 45 fouls, seven technicals — six on players and a seventh on a delay of game penalty — 63 free throws and 27 turnovers.
“It wasn’t the prettiest,” James Harden said, “but we’ll take it.”
Harden, like Embiid, tried to downplay the significance of playing against his former teammates. So, too, did Kevin Durant — who remains sidelined with an MCL sprain — on Tuesday, who said rivalries are “not really a thing” in the NBA these days.
But the actions of all involved said otherwise Wednesday, and Rivers himself admitted that he thought his team got caught up in all of the energy and excitement around Simmons and Embiid finally squaring off.
“I thought the team overall did,” Rivers said. “We got caught up in all the crap going on tonight. There was a lot of chippiness, and that’s good, but play above it, stay above it. Keep playing. I didn’t think we did that.”
Embiid finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 34 minutes, while Simmons had 12 points — all in the second half — five rebounds and five assists.
Simmons looked like a far different, and more aggressive, player in the second half, after taking only attempt in the first half — a half-hearted hook shot in Embiid’s vicinity that fell short.
“He just made a choice,” said Kyrie Irving, who had game highs of 30 points and 10 assists. “He just made a choice to put his head down, be aggressive for our team and we need him to do that. Just came to the bench and encouraging him as we do every single day so when he’s aggressive like that being Ben Simmons, then we look very, very good and it gives us opportunities that sometimes we don’t get if he’s not. So, we’re just going to keep supporting him and just him to continue to do that.”
But while Simmons was more aggressive in the second half, he found himself rooted to the bench for the final 8 minutes, 57 seconds — a stretch that included Brooklyn wiping out a 14-point deficit with an 18-4 run to tie the score and turn the finish into a roller-coaster ride for the hometown fans. Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said Simmons was benched to give Brooklyn more shooting and spacing on the court.
The game was finally decided when De’Anthony Melton, again starting in place of Tyrese Maxey, converted a pair of free throws with 12.4 seconds to go, and Embiid stole the ensuing inbounds pass. It was the sixth consecutive victory for Philadelphia and it kept the 76ers in sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Nets, meanwhile, are 2-5 since Durant exited the lineup with his injury.
But, after so much hype and buildup for Simmons and Embiid to finally share the court together, Rivers was pleased he and his team could put the game behind them.
“Now,” he said with a smile, “we can get back to regularly scheduled programming.”