The Brooklyn Nets are preparing to face the Boston Celtics in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving form a pretty formidable scoring duo, but so do Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Which team boasts the better duo is certainly a point of contention among the rival fanbases. The Celtics have their own advantage in the form of All-NBA Defender Marcus Smart. But what if the Nets could return one of their own Defensive Player of the Year candidates? What if Ben Simmons could really return at some point in the series?

Not even a few weeks ago, the idea of Simmons playing his first NBA action in nearly a year, just in time for the biggest games of the Nets’ season, felt like a pipe dream. Suddenly, after a series of reports by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and The Athletic’s Shams Charania, hinting the three-time All-Star is aiming for a return between Game 4 and Game 6, we’re pinching ourselves over the possibility.

Could it be happening? Per ESPN’s Nick Friedell, Simmons was at Nets’ shootaround Saturday, and wanted to make sure everyone saw him throw down a jam:

Friedell notes that Simmons said “make sure you get this.” It’s possible Simmons was hinting he was aware of a rumor that he declined to dunk in practice when a photographer showed up back in early March.

Remember this story, discussed on the Mike Missanelli show, on local Philly radio:

“During the Nets photo shoot this afternoon, team photographers asked Ben Simmons to perform a dunk and he pointed to his back and said he was unable to.”

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That incident had ominous implications. Nets fans were having the seemingly benign conversations about whether the team was simply delaying so he wouldn’t have to first return for a game in Philly. But as it turned out, there was no gamesmanship going on. Simmons was seriously hurt, having aggravated a back issue suffering a herniated disc of the L-4 vertebrae.

So Simmons had an epidural in mid-March and seems to be feeling significantly better. That doesn’t mean his return should be considered imminent. But if he’s gaining more confidence in practice settings, if he’s doing more with his teammates, and clearing significant milestones, maybe there’s a path back for him after all. Throwing down a dunk wouldn’t hurt. You can bet Sixers fans would have some jokes about that part though.

If the Nets can somehow get a Game 1 victory, they’ll become significant favorites to advance to the second round. And then you may get more than a game or two of Simmons and possibly even see one of his patented transition rim rockers in a playoff game.

Despite what appears to be some positive progression from the Nets’ star, head coach Steve Nash wouldn’t say whether or not Simmons was “close” to returning to action, despite noting the improvement the 25-year-old has made.

There’s still a long way to go for the Melbourne native. But if he can keep improving and knock out some high-intensity five-on-five practices, we’ll know he’s nearing that Nets debut.