Playoff atmosphere much? Big game fever!
With Thursday’s game between the Nets and Sixers getting closer, the intensity is getting higher. While everyone involved, at least on the Brooklyn side, claims it’s just another game, everyone also knows it isn’t. The Nets and Sixers already had a history of bad blood before the trade deadline blockbuster with superstars waving each other off their respective courts. Now, even though Ben Simmons will be on the bench and not the court in Philadelphia Thursday, it will be Kevin Durant vs. Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving vs. James Harden.
And the gamesmanship has begun.
In Charlotte Tuesday night, both KD and Kyrie tried to downplay things. It’s not a playoff game. It’s just another game. And there’s no hard feelings of course that Harden and Simmons forced their way out of their respective locker rooms.
Durant told reporters that respected Harden’s decision to want out. When asked if he thought there was anything that could’ve been done to keep the 10-time All-Star in Brooklyn, Durant at least sounded philosophical.
“No, no, I mean when you look at it, try to look at it from his perspective,” Durant started. “You look up, Ky’s not playing, then, I’m injured. He hasn’t won a championship before. So he’s looking at it. He’s 32 years old, I guess, looking at himself, wanted to make a decision to get on a team that can get him to that: Contending, being one of the last teams standing. So, you look at it from his perspective. You just say, it is what it is. You can’t really control how somebody feels when they’re thinking like that.
“Hopefully, he stays healthy and their team stays healthy and we stay healthy. We have a great year and they have a great year and we can just move on from this.”
Irving was also diplomatic.
“I was coming in late into things and I was told one thing, and then told another thing,” Irving said, referring to his vaccine status. “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 then I respect his decision. That’s just what it is,” said Irving. “I wish him nothing but peace and love.
“We have a great friendship, but it didn’t work out. Wish things could have been communicated better for all of us as men; but hey, no hard feelings here with me or anything else.”
Of course, there have been reports, likely true, that Harden had tired of Irving’s situation, that he didn’t believe his fellow superstar’s part-time role would work over the long term, that he wasn’t committed.
Meanwhile, Sean Marks, in an interview with Steve Bulpett of Heavy.com, talked about the disappointment of never really seeing what his masterpiece, the “Big Three,” could do, their time together limited to 16 games what with injuries, illness and Irving’s vaccine status. But Marks being Marks, he said he’s moved on to the new “Big Three.”
“Yeah, I mean, I think everybody including those three are frustrated that, golly, we didn’t get to see what that really looked like. And that’s … it’s like, what if?” Marks told Bulpett. “And you hate saying what ifs. You want to have concrete evidence. We didn’t have the sample size we would have obviously hoped for, but again, in this industry, like we just mentioned before, you’ve got to make hard decisions and you just don’t have time to wait. And I think this particular deal (Simmons-Harden), as difficult as it is, we’re obviously happy with who we have. We’re excited with these three new guys and the fit that’s potentially there.”
The new “Big Three’s” fit, of course, will take some time and there will be only a few moments to see how it works this season. Barring an unlikely change in New York’s private employer mandate, Durant, Irving and Simmons will only be able to play three games together: March 23 at Memphis; March 26 at Miami and April 2 at Atlanta ... assuming no other bad fortune befalls the Nets reality show that Bulpett rightly calls, The Real Basketball Players of Brooklyn.
At the same time, Philly fans are ecstatic with Harden who has looked like peak Harden since reuniting with Daryl Morey. The Sixers have won every game he’s played. Simmons return to Wells Fargo Center, even in street clothes, is becoming less the center of attraction. It’s more about the possibilities that Embiid and Harden present: the Sixers first championship since 1983.
Still, there will be added security, per Kyle Neubeck of the Philly Voice. He described it as a ”playoff-level crew” driven by “celebrity presence and a larger media contingent, in addition to the obvious angle regarding Simmons and the Nets.”
Neubeck also reported that Simmons will soon file a grievance against the 76ers in hopes of recovering the more than $19 million in fines the organization levied against him for not showing up. Neubeck suggested that Team Simmons would use Philly fans’ negative reaction Thursday as “Exhibit A” in trying to convince an arbitrator to side with its contention that Simmons mental health issues were exacerbated by the Philly fanbase’s negativity.
Of course, Simmons has publicly said that his issues were much broader. “It was a bunch of things I was dealing with as a person in my personal life that I don’t want to go into depth with.” he said in his introductory press conference. And the Sixers GM said three days later that he believes Simmons was dealing with mental health issues: “I believe him. He was going through something.”
Beyond all the hoopla, there is the larger issue of the standings. The Nets need every win they can get. They’re in eighth place in the East and will almost certainly be in the play-in tournament. The Sixers, as noted, think they can win it all and are now only two games back of the top seeded Heat in the loss column. Brooklyn will have Irving but will be without LaMarcus Aldridge who’s out with a hip impingement.
As Marks told Bulpett, things are getting tight.
“Everybody feels a sense of urgency,. I don’t think anybody’s sitting here going, well, we’ll be okay, you know, and it’ll be fine. Those words never come out. It’s a sense of what else can we do? Are we doing everything we can to get this group on the floor together as quick as possible, healthy, playing the right way together?”
So expect a wild one with plots and subplots and maybe a preview of a first round series a month from now. It would only seem right.