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Brooklyn Nets ascend to heavens in Ben Simmons return, defeat Utah Jazz 147-114

Ben Simmons’ first game in nearly three months exceeded everybody’s expectations. It was an absolute joy.

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The universe will test you.

Ben Simmons checked into his first game in nearly three months with the Brooklyn Nets leading the Utah Jazz 16-14, a little over five minutes gone in the first quarter. The Barclays Center crowd gave him a cordial applause, too anxious about what would follow to really cheer their hearts out.

As the Jazz prepared to run a baseline-out-of-bounds set, Simmons waltzed over to guard John Collins, followed by every pair of eyes in the building. Immediately, those eyes followed Simmons suddenly running in the other direction with the ball in his hands. The Jazz had turned it over immediately, so intrigued by Simmons’ return they were willing to tank a possession in order to treat us all to some fun.

So, Simmons and Royce O’Neale ran the break, with only 6’1” Collin Sexton between them and the basket. The crowd then prepared to moan; instead of a give-and-go or an improbable alley-oop five seconds into the Aussie’s return, Simmons stayed even more true to form.

He passed it to Royce O’Neale, who enraged every greying high-school coach in the country by running to the 3-point line instead of the basket. Yet, before the Brooklyn faithful could process any disappointment, O’Neale cashed a step-back three, and the party was on:

The Brooklyn Nets would finish the game 21-of-45 from deep, parading up and down the floor while launching at will, up until Harry Giles III hit a corner three in the game’s final moments. It was that type of night.

There were hardly segments of Monday’s raucous win over Utah, just a 48-minute bombardment of joyous bucket-getting until the Jazz finally rolled over in the fourth quarter. Will Hardy’s squad conceded that no, this night was not about them. They missed many-an-open-look in the first half, but even if they all rimmed in, they weren’t snatching main-character status from Ben Simmons.

Said Jacque Vaughn: “Once he said he was ready to go, I had no qualms that he was going to be able to push the pace for us and get back to the high-energy, high-octane pace that he’s played with, with this group.”

After a four-minute stint in the first quarter, Simmons already had six assists and a couple boards, flashing a golden touch that would’ve made Midas jealous. When asked where he’d make an impact on the Nets in his return, Simmons simply said, “everywhere,” and boy, he wasn’t lying. Reader, you would have shot 3-of-5 from deep catching passes from the three-time All-Star on Monday night.

Here he is hitting the rock ahead to Mikal Bridges, who calmly steps into a contested pull-up three:

Cash money.

Bridges would score 33 points on 12-of-24 shooting, including 6-of-14 from three, flashing not just a willingness to fire from three, but a lack of a conscience. That extended to all of Brooklyn’s marksmen, whether it was Cam Thomas going 4-of-5 from distance on his way to 25 points, or four 3-pointer for Lonnie Walker IV, who scored 19 off the bench:

“Shout out to Ben10,” said Walker. “The beginning of the game, I think he was just locked in. He really brought that energy for us, really changed the game as far as just pushing the rock in transition. When you have a whole bunch of shooters around him who’s ready to shoot and running with him, it becomes a really dangerous game.”

The common denominator in all those clips? That’s right, Simmons pushing the pace and finding shooters. Perhaps the biggest winner of the night is his agent, Bernie Lee, who tweeted/X’d on January 22nd that his client was “going to fix their issues.”

Well, Lee can take a sweet, sweet victory lap on Monday night. Should the Nets have shot better in his client’s absence? Could they have pushed the pace more? Is it a troubling sign that their fast-break offense nearly collapsed with the disappearance of one man?

These are all worthy questions, but the answers don’t matter in the slightest. Not after a game where they scored 13 transition-points in the first quarter, exceeding their total average (12.0) over the past 22 games, in which they went 5-17.

“Yeah, it’s always a fast break when I have the ball,” said Simmons, later saying that “not many teams are ready for a team that’s pushing the ball every single time down the floor, you know? So it gets guys cross-matched, different matchups that you want for us offensively.”

Brooklyn took a 71-57 lead into halftime, but the scoreboard wasn’t the main story. The Nets were playing with joy. With a fervor. An attitude that didn’t just grant them the lead, but made them fun to watch. Sure, it’s easy to smile while making 13 threes on 48% shooting in a half, but hey, maybe Simmons really did fix all Brooklyn’s issues.

“It’s just, when you see the ball go in, these guys are human beings. There’s a psyche about it and it makes you want to defend better.” said Vaughn.

In the second half, the floodgates opened. The Nets kept making 3-pointers, spreading the Jazz so thin that they ultimately conceded the paint. Nic Claxton finished with another double-double, 11-and-10, including repeated, angry dunks on irritated Jazzmen:

Simmons played just 18 minutes off the bench, avoiding any overlap with Claxton, but Brooklyn remained pristine no matter who was on the court. Nine blocks and twelve steals to just eight turnovers. Sixty points in the paint. A historic 41 assists, only the third time the Nets have reached that mark in the 21st century. And 147 points, three points short of the franchise mark for points in regulation.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Net that didn’t play well. Here’s Cam Johnson (17 points) tween-tween-tweening Lauri Markkanen (13 points) into a right-handed dunk, handily winning the battle of stretch-fours:

Everybody who touched the floor had a moment of catharsis; even Spencer Dinwiddie, who contributed two points and eight assists, was caught cheesing on camera as the final seconds ticked away. It was the best type of distraction, 48 minutes of bliss during a season gone haywire. You may have had hope for the return of Simmons, but this was more like a dream.

“When did I feel like I was back in business? When they let me play. When I was cleared to play,” said the man of the hour.

The Jazz did not look like the team that’s played excellent ball of late, but rather mountain-men on a back-to-back and the fifth game of an exhausting six-game swing on the East Coast. Nobody played well besides Kelly Olynyk, who looked like Arvydas Sabonis operating from the high-post.

Some of his high-low actions with Walker Kessler exposed the concerns of a Simmons-at-the-5 lineup, but the Nets scored more than enough to keep that noise in the background.

Everybody boosted their averages tonight, including Simmons, who posted a near-triple-double with ten points, eight boards, and eleven assists in his brief time on the court. He even got a signature moment, playing excellent defense in the gap to come up with a steal, leading to an uncontested breakaway dunk.

I admit, the negative thoughts flooded my brain as he strolled down court. My stomach dropped just a tad, my senses overwhelmed with thoughts such as: It can’t be this easy. He’s gonna roll an ankle. He’s gonna smoke the dunk. He’s gonna dribble it off his foot.

I was too cynical. Maybe watching so much Nets basketball made me this way. Maybe I was predisposed to it, and such a cursed franchise acquiring Ben Simmons ratcheted it up to ten. Maybe this organization and their max-contract player deserve such skepticism.

But they didn’t on Monday night. The Brooklyn Nets and Ben Simmons did everything right. Of course he made the dunk. Of course his teammates shot 200% on threes from his passes. The fans that didn’t fight the moment but felt it instead knew what they were witnessing. By the time Simmons checked out, he earned the standing ovation he received.

Said Jacque Vaughn: “Other people played so well tonight because of the impact of Ben Simmons. It’s that simple.”

Final Score: Brooklyn Nets 147, Utah Jazz 114

Simmons, Walker discuss futures

During the post-game media session, both Ben Simmons and Lonnie Walker IV made comments indicating that they are happy in Brooklyn.

“This is probably one of the best teams in terms of friendships that I’ve been a part of, said Simmons. “Everyone gets along. We don’t have any egos on the team and guys want to win and compete so for me to be in an environment like this is amazing. I get to come to work with a bunch of friends that want to get better and compete. I’m happy.”

Jacque Vaughn added his comment on Simmons’ present and future.

“He wants to play. I’ll say that to the world or whoever. He wants to play. He wants to play here. He has the ability to impact a team,” said the head coach.

Lonnie Walker wasn’t as definitive as Simmons but he too discussed how he’s looking for a “forever home.”

“I’m on a minimum, so I carry that weight on my shoulders as far as finding a home, playing the right way, and continuing to get better.” said the 25-year-old. “Right now I’m locked in trying to find that forever home.”

Simmons and Walker, of course, are on totally different contracts. Simmons knows he’ll make $40,3 million next season while Walker is on a one-year vets’ minimum deal after making $6.5 million last season with the Lakers. The Nets do not have Walker’s Bird Rights nor are they likely to have cap space, but they are likely to have both the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions next season. The MLE is expected to be at $12.9 million and can extend for four years with 5.0% raises while the BAA will be at $4.7 million and can be extended for two years with a $5% raise.

Of course, that assumes the Nets can find a way to stay below the luxury tax threshold.

Milestone Watch

Oh, we have milestones aplenty tonight, both team and individual.

  • Let’s start with he who pushes the pace. Ben Simmons became the second player in NBA history to record at least 10/5/10 without missing a shot from the floor. The first? Nikola Jokić in 2018.
  • It accounts for Simmons’ third double-double of the season, but his first with points and assists.
  • A 33-point margin of victory is Brooklyn’s largest of the season.
  • The Nets dished 41 assists, a season-high of course, and just the 12th time the franchise has reached 40 dimes in a game. But this is the first time they've ever done it while turning it over less than ten times (eight TOs).
  • Brooklyn scored 28 points transition and 27 from second-chance opportunities. That’s the first time they've scored over 25 in each category in the same game this season.

Dariq Whitehead Undergoes Surgery

Prior to Monday’s tip-off, the Nets announced that rookie Dariq Whitehead underwent successful surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery to address a stress reaction in his left shin. The press release can be read in full, below:

This is now the second time team orthopedist Dr. Martin O’Malley has operated on Whitehead, the first being a June 2023 surgery on the ex-Duke Blue Devil’s right foot. He also underwent surgery in August 2022 on that same foot.

An initial recovery timeline of three months would take us to the end of April, and thus, the 19-year-old guard could be ready for July’s Las Vegas Summer League, which he did not play in last year. Still, Jacque Vaughn wasn't ready to speculate that far ahead, simply saying, “I talked to him today. He was in good spirits. He’ll stay at home today, stay home tomorrow. The hope is that he is a full participant in our offseason development. So, looking forward to that for him and his career going forward.”

Next Up

Phoenix Suns v Orlando Magic Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images

He’s back. The Brooklyn Nets will face the Phoenix Suns, capping off a five-game home-stand. To tribute video or not to video, that is the question.

Tip-off is scheduled for Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. ET.