Ever since the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers agreed on a blockbuster trade that packaged James Harden and Paul Millsap to the City of Brotherly Love in exchange for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two future first-round picks on February 10, the date March 10 was circled on everyone's calendar.
That date has arrived. The teams’ first matchup since the star-studded NBA trade deadline transaction in front of a hostile soldout crowd at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia; a crowd Kyrie Irving sarcastically expects to be “lovely.” The matchup is packed with several storylines but there’s no bigger one than the highly anticipated return of Philly’s formerly beloved star, Simmons.
He walked into Wells Fargo Thursday morning for the first time in nearly eight months but didn’t respond to a reporters question...
While it remains to be seen when Simmons will make his season debut, the 25-year-old star, who didn’t travel with Brooklyn to Boston or Charlotte, made the trip with his teammates to Philadelphia and will sit on the bench. Although he won’t be on the court competing in front of his former fans, don’t expect anything less than one of the rowdiest former player returns in recent years. One that his former Sixer teammate — and current Nets teammate — believes can rank up with two of the most hostile returns in the last decade.
“It’s going to be a good atmosphere. There’s a lot of emotion in the building,” said Seth Curry.” You see much of these types of returns when certain guys leave and come back over the year in the NBA. It’s going to be up there with probably KD going back to OKC. Bron [LeBron James] going back to Cleveland. Those types of hostile environments.”
The return will mark Simmons’ first time back at Wells Fargo Center since the Game 7 slugfest against the Atlanta Hawks back on June 20, 2021 — the last game he wore the Sixers threads ... and faced backlash from his teammates and Philly fanatics for his disappointing postseason play. It was the first step of what would end up being an ugly six-month holdout and the start of extreme hatred for the star in the City of Philadelphia.
Kevin Durant knows all too well about what type of hostility his newest star teammate will endure Thursday night. After spending eight years as a member of the Thunder, Durant made his return to Oklahoma City; a return flooded with heavy boos, mocking posterboards, and much, much more from a sold-out crowd back in 2017. Durant is also a minority owner of the Philadelphia Union, which is the City of Brotherly Love’s Major League Soccer team.
“It’s going to be loud. I’m sure Philly fans, people watching the game, and media think this is some budding rivalry so I imagine it’s going to feel that way,” Durant said Tuesday, looking ahead to Thursday. “Philly has some of the best sports fans in the world. It’s only good if they come and show support to their team but also see how we look too. It shows we got some talent over here as well.”
KD, of course, knows from reunions.
When Durant was asked whether he has or plans on saying something extra to Simmons ahead of his hostility-packed return to the Wells Fargo Center — an area that can hold a little over 20,000 fans at full capacity — the superstar wants his new teammate to take in the whole experience by himself. He knows that Simmons understands what’s coming his way from the bench.
“Absolutely not,” Durant said. “That’s one of those things he’s going to have to experience for himself. I can’t go over there and nobody’s going to hold his hand. I’m sure there’s going to be some personal attacks. Some words may trigger you personally but that’s just how fans are. They want to get under our skin and let their voices be heard. Part of the experience coming to an NBA game is the heckle. Some people don’t even enjoy basketball. Their lives are so shitty that they aim it at other people. It’s easy to get that release at a basketball game.
“Ben understands that. I’m sure some stuff may be funny. You never know but at the end of the day, you realize life is amazing. We play the game of basketball for a living. A little bit of trash-talking; it is what it is.”
KD also had some less than subtle advice for Philly fans.
“Some people don’t even enjoy basketball. Their lives are so s***ty that they just get to aim it at other people,” he said, a big smile crossing his face.
Unfortunately for Simmons, it will also be an awkward return. Unlike the poster boy returns of LeBron James in Cleveland and Durant in Oklahoma City, he will be stuck on the bench throughout the contest instead of playing through the boos and attempting to shut up the famous Philly boo bird with his play on the hardwood. Overall, Durant knows he’ll be fine when it’s all said and over with.
“The good thing about it is we get a chance to perform and shut the people up. It’s a fun dynamic with fans and players because they really do love us at the end of the day. A part of their job is to be fanatics, be radical about the game, and about their team. We all understand that as professionals. Some of the stuff may go overboard but at the end of the day, ain’t nothing going to happen to us, I feel. Ben doesn’t have that opportunity right now,” Durant said.
“He’s got to just sit there and take a bunch of people being childish because he didn’t want to play basketball for them anymore. It’s funny when you look at the big picture,” Durant said. “You see what it really is but that’s just the sport we play. He’s making forty million dollars a year. You can take that for a couple of hours. I’m sure Ben has that approach.”
While Simmons’ will be getting a heavy majority of the boos, if not all of them on the bench, the Nets head coach, Steve Nash believes his team is excited to play in that type of environment on the hardwood Thursday night.
“I think the team will be excited,” Steve Nash said. “Those environments, they’re fun to play in. We’re going to get a great crowd in Philly. It’s great for our guys to respond and play in that type of their environment.”
Meanwhile, a second layer to Thursday’s highly anticipated matchup includes Brooklyn competiting against one of their former cornerstone superstars for the first time.
Nets’ downplay competing against James Harden for first time since trade
There’s no secret James Harden’s exit from the Nets was one that many saw coming and the writing was on the walls in the weeks leading up to the February 10 trade deadline. It was the end of a “Big Three” era in Brooklyn that was filled with what-ifs and the 32-year-old superstar jumping ship and landing to another Eastern Conference championship contender.
“It’ll be a different feeling to play against him soon after the trade, but exciting,” Nash said on facing Harden Thursday night. “It’ll be an exciting night for everyone to play. I’m sure the energy will be high and be a competitive game.”
For Kevin Durant, he’s approaching the matchup against Harden and the 76ers simply as another regular season game. The 33-year-old explained when he was a young player in the NBA, former teammate reunions felt differently. It could disrupt the preparation going into the contest and on the court play.
“I don’t think it’ll be anything different than a regular game. When I was younger like 22, 23, you see a guy that just got traded and you’re emotions are everywhere. You don’t realize how you’re going to approach the game because it feels like a big game because you’re going against one of your former teammates. It is what it is. It’s another game for us,” Durant stated. “We’re looking to win. They’re looking to win. Move up in the standings for us and they’re looking to maintain where they are. I know James was here and he built some relationships with a couple of people here but at the end of the day, we’re looking to go out there and hoop.”
Kyrie Irving echoed a similar viewpoint as Durant, downplaying any extra feeling about playing their former superstar teammate who requested to come to Brooklyn back in January with the main goal of winning a championship. The Nets guard understands the hype and buildup heading into the game from the outside but simply wants to go into Philly and head back to Brooklyn with a win in the record column.
“It’s fun. It makes for good stories. It makes for good narratives. It makes a good build-up for our league. It’s never too personal but we understand as competitors, we want to win the game,” Irving said. “We go in there with resolve, with a focus, and be ready for whatever. I know the Philly crowd is going to be what it is. Everybody likes to build that up but specifically for us, it’s not about any individual matchups. It’s about us going in there and just being a great team and building on what we set out to do.”
The two superstars didn’t shy away from explaining their opinions on Harden’s departure leading up to Thursday’s matchup. Durant, who spoke about it before Irving after Brooklyn’s 132-121 win against the Hornets in Charlotte Tuesday night, bluntly explained how he felt his former superstar running mate wanted to make the best decision for himself and a decision that would give him the best chance to win his first championship — a place Brooklyn’s moving parts left Harden with plenty of doubt.
“You can try to look at it from his perspective. You look up and Kai’s not playing. Then I’m injured. He hasn’t won a championship before. He’s 32 years old right, I guess, so he’s looking at himself and wanting to make a decision to get on a team being one of the last teams standing. You look at it from his perspective and you say it is what it is,” Durant said. “You can’t really control how somebody feels when he’s thinking like that. Hopefully, he stays healthy. Their team stays healthy. We stay healthy. We have a great year. They have a great year, and we can move on from this.”
Irving took more of a personal approach rather than a team approach. In his response when asked whether there was anything the Nets and himself could have done to convince Harden to remain a Net, the superstar guard pointed out the uncertainty revolved around several key aspects that contradicted with Harden’s confidence of winning a championship. Looking back, the guard wishes there was just better collective communication instead of what transpired, but made it clear there is no love lost between the two.
“I was coming in late into things and I was told one thing, and then told another thing,” he said, apparently referring to his vaccine situation. “Then the trade deadline comes up and now it's a whole different situation. I thought we were in a good swing, but everybody has their own visions. If that's what James wanted, I respect his decision,” Irving stated. “I wish him nothing but peace and love. We have a great friendship but it didn't work out. Wish things could’ve been communicated better for all of us as men; but hey, no hard feelings here with me or anything else.”
Clearly, the Nets know Harden and the way he plays as best as anyone. More importantly, Nash knows what it takes to limit his former guard’s elite production on the hardwood. When the Nets head coach was asked whether he plans on reuniting with Harden Thursday night, Nash explained how he doesn’t “really get a chance to talk to opposing players.”
“It’s got to be defended by five guys. A 5-man defense and try to take away the easy ones,” Nash said. “Don’t foul and put him at the line and don’t let him get to our rim.”
“It’s one of the many [things] guarding him,” added Nash on Harden’s ability to get to the foul line. “Obviously, he can score the three, get to the line as well as get to the rim. He’s a great play-maker. There are so many things. That’s why he’s one of the top 75 players of all time. He can beat you in many ways.”
Meanwhile, in Philly, the Sixers kept Harden and Joel Embiid away from the cameras, leaving it to Doc Rivers, basketball diplomat.
“I don’t like how, let’s say, this rivalry was started,” Rivers said with a smile. “I’ll pass on all that, let me put it that way. But I love when there’s rivalries. I love when there’s teams that are in the same conference that want to play each other and go after each other. That’s all good.
“The league is in a great place right now. It really is. I mean, you look at the East, there’s five, six teams that legitimately can win the East. In the West, the same thing. So if you’re over at the league, if you’re Adam Silver right now, you’re loving the league, you really are. Because competition is good, right? That’s what we want. We want a good, hard game, with competition. And that’s a great thing, and I think we have it in our league right now.”
Then, there’s the question of whether the 76ers will post a Simmons tribute video. After all, he was Rookie of the Year, a three-time All-Star, two-time All-Defense and one time All-NBA in his four years in Philly. No word yet, but Rivers said recently he thinks he deserves one.
“Ben did a lot of good things here, you know? It didn’t end well, right? Just like marriages and all kinds of other things [that] don’t end well.”