Questions surrounding Ben Simmons’ slow start had ramped up in recent weeks for the Brooklyn Nets. With Simmons averaging just 5.2 points on 5.0 shots per game heading into this week, a 6-8 Nets squad that already fired its head coach and suspended All-Star guard Kyrie Irving was searching for answers.
A Tuesday report from Shams Charania detailed Brooklyn’s growing frustrations with the first-year Net, saying some within the organization had begun “questioning Simmons’ passion for the game.”
The Aussie responded Tuesday with an 11-point, 5-of-7 shooting performance in Sacramento, his best as a Net up to that point. The showing offered a different feel than anything the three-time All-Star had shown prior.
Simmons followed that up with another season-best effort Wednesday night in a thrilling 109-107 Nets win over the Portland Trail Blazers. The former No. 1 pick was everywhere on the court, posting 15 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists on 6-of-6 shooting while overwhelming Damian Lillard defensively down the stretch.
“I’m coming,” Simmons said postgame. “I’m getting there, man. It’s taking a little bit of time, but I got my own back. My teammates got my back, my coaches.”
Kevin Durant has shouldered the burden as Brooklyn’s lone go-to scorer with Simmons battling a knee injury and Irving suspended. The former MVP didn’t hold back praise for his new teammate after the stellar performance.
“Incredible,” Durant said of Ben Simmons’ showing. “I’m just happy for him because he’s been trying to get his form back, trying to figure his rhythm out. Tonight I think he did a good job just talking up, commanding the offense, commanding the team on the defensive side of the ball. He was incredible tonight. So we’re going to keep building on that and hopefully we’re able to get this next one. But he controlled the game and was able to get us back into it.”
Simmons has played a noticeably aggressive brand of basketball the last two games after opening the season extremely passive. The 26-year-old’s physicality jumped off the screen Thursday as he battled for post position, attacked in transition, fought for rebounds, and challenged high-caliber guards and centers defensively:
“It’s very encouraging,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said of Ben Simmons’ performance. “Most minutes he’s played, really responded well. It’s kind of what we envisioned with him doing everything for us. The defensive versatility of guarding [Jusuf] Nurkic and also Damian Lillard. A lot of people can’t do that. And if we can continue to grow with him and understand him, his game, how he benefits, with who. It’s very encouraging.”
With the Nets leading by three with 3:30 remaining, Portland reverted to a hack-a-Ben strategy on back-to-back possessions. It was the first time a team had employed the strategy in a big moment this season. Simmons was unfazed, knocking down 3-of-4 free throws to extend the Brooklyn lead to four:
“I love those moments,” Ben Simmons said of the high-pressure trips to the line. “I’m not going to shy away. That was their plan. Obviously, it didn’t work. We were able to convert a couple free throws, get some stops. Just keep building. I like those moments.”
“We had no doubts when he walked up there,” Durant said. “I felt like we all were confident. Just the way the game was flowing and just how he was playing. I felt super confident when he went up there. So 3-for-4, crunch time, that was key for us. We needed those.”
Simmons was a late scratch Sunday in Los Angeles after missing four games with soreness and swelling in his left knee the week prior. This comes with the former Rookie of the Year also recovering from offseason back surgery. Simmons has emphasized that his physical re-acclimation would be a process this year. And the 6-foot-11 physical specimen has finally begun to look more like his old self in his last two performances.
“People seem like I had a sprained ankle or something, I had back surgery. That’s not easy to come back from,” Simmons said postgame Thursday. “So I take it day by day. I stay locked in, I stay focused. And just continue to build in myself, my body, and my game.”
Durant led Brooklyn with 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting. However, his teammates who would pick him up down the stretch following a series of mental errors. After Durant inexplicably fouled Jusuf Nurkic for an and-1 while up three, a Royce O’Neale tip-in off a Durant miss would secure the win for the Nets:
Royce O'Neale with the TIP IN to give the Nets the lead with .7 seconds left 😱pic.twitter.com/f2lVnfQiB8
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) November 18, 2022
O’Neale notched his first career triple-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 11 assists in the win.
Yuta Watanabe turned in an incredible performance off the bench. The non-guaranteed minimum signing continues to impact the game at a high level by rebounding, defending on the perimeter, running the floor and knocking down several clutch triples on his way to a season-high 20 points on 5-of-7 shooting from deep Thursday.
The win brings the Nets to 7-9 on the season. Brooklyn will welcome back Kyrie Irving after an eight-game suspension when they play host to the Memphis Grizzlies Sunday.