basketball

Sixers vs. Nets: Injury-depleted Sixers beat Brooklyn in Ben Simmons’ first game back

How’s that for a team win?

With Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Jaden Springer all sidelined, Tuesday night’s matchup against the Nets at Wells Fargo Center was far from a lost cause for the Sixers.

They improved to 9-8 this season with a 115-106 victory. Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton, Paul Reed, Georges Niang and Shake Milton all scored 16 or more points.

Kyrie Irving posted 23 points, Kevin Durant 20.

In his first game at Wells Fargo Center since the Sixers’ Game 7 playoff loss to the Hawks on June 20, 2021, Ben Simmons scored 11 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds, three blocks and three steals.

The Sixers will travel to Charlotte and play the Hornets on Wednesday night. Here are observations on their win over Brooklyn:

Simmons vs. the Sixers…

As anyone familiar with Simmons’ Sixers history could have foreseen, he received loud boos whenever he had the ball. The crowd also sprinkled in a couple of “F— Ben Simmons” chants.

The night started brightly for both Simmons and Brooklyn. Nicolas Claxton had eight of the Nets’ first 10 points, all of them in the paint, and the Nets grabbed an early eight-point lead.

Harris thought he cleanly blocked Simmons’ first field-goal attempt, but he was whistled for a foul and Simmons went to the free-throw line, where fans had a sustained chance to let loose the boos. He quieted the volume with a 2-for-2 trip. To the crowd’s delight, Simmons couldn’t replicate that effort in the third quarter. His consecutive misses at the foul line meant free chicken nuggets through the Sixers’ “Bricken for Chicken” promotion.

Simmons didn’t stun the Sixers by considering long-distance jumpers, but he did display his variety of skills. Early in the second quarter, the 26-year-old blocked a Niang floater and then slammed in a dunk on the ensuing possession. A perfectly weighted outlet pass assisting Royce O’Neale in the third period was another impressive moment for Simmons.

Though he’s a former teammate of Simmons’, Niang never actually played a game alongside him last season. He gave Simmons a cushion defensively while also occasionally poking at the ball and adding a bit of physicality. He pushed that approach too far with an off-ball shove late in the second quarter that the officials deemed a Flagrant 1 foul.

The Sixers built a large enough lead that Hack-a-Simmons wasn’t on the table late in the game. Simmons checked out with 3:08 left and the Nets trailing by 14 points.

Sixers with big edge beyond arc

PJ Tucker slipped a screen nicely on the Sixers’ first possession, but he came up well short on a close-range shot, missing a chance to score for the first time since Nov. 12.

Quite a few Sixers’ possessions lasted until late in the shot clock, but their shotmaking was decent in those spots. Harris made a difficult turnaround jumper in the first quarter and Melton drained a three-pointer. He beat the first-half buzzer, too.

The Sixers introduced a zone defense in the middle of the first period, and it didn’t flummox the Nets. On the second Brooklyn possession against the zone, Simmons found space for a righty layup. Durant also hit two mid-range jumpers. Without Embiid, the Sixers’ formula for adequate defense is likely some combination of well-timed aggression and opponents missing jumpers.

The Sixers at least had Brooklyn trade twos for threes. Furkan Korkmaz made a corner three on his first attempt, giving the Sixers their first lead of the night at 21-20. Milton dished a lefty wraparound pass to Niang for a triple. When Niang rumbled in for a layup on the Sixers’ next possession, Harden and Maxey’s smiles stood out on the Sixers’ bench. The Sixers ultimately led by seven points after a quarter mainly because they were 5 for 8 from long range and the Nets were 0 for 3. Brooklyn didn’t make a three until 8:24 remained in the second quarter.

Matisse Thybulle, who’s been bothered recently by an ankle injury, checked in for the first time with 5:58 left in the second. Rather improbably, his first touch was a corner three made just before the shot clock expired. Thybulle tried twice from the same spot soon after, but he came up empty.

As for Tucker, his scoreless run simply wouldn’t end. He’d been very efficient on his typical low volume to start the season, making 57.4 percent of his field goals and 11 of his 24 threes through 13 games. However, he fell to 0 for 6 from the floor late in the third quarter Tuesday when he air-balled a corner three. He will surely score again soon enough.

Reed rises to the moment, Harris steps up after injury scare

Montrezl Harrell wasn’t always smooth with the ball in his hands, but he ultimately provided six points, four rebounds and his usual high-energy peskiness around the paint in his first run. He helped the Sixers end the evening with a 20-4 advantage in offensive rebounds by pulling down six in just 16 minutes.

Reed also chipped in with a tip-in during his initial stint, which was a long one because he played so well. Reed’s ability to hang with perimeter players defensively was valuable, too. He contested a Seth Curry miss, blocked a Joe Harris layup, played solid post defense to force Simmons into a missed righty hook, and broke up an O’Neale lob intended for Simmons. At his best, Reed’s knack for doing something productive on almost every play is not dissimilar to Melton’s. He took full advantage of the minutes available with Embiid out and had an excellent showing overall.

Reed had one of his better stretches this season as a roller on Tuesday night. Brooklyn’s defense was often flimsy, but Reed dove hard and effectively to the rim. His layup with 8:45 left in the second quarter put the Sixers up 42-30. At that stage, the Sixers had 19 bench points and the Nets just four. The final margin there was 47-29.

It appeared the Sixers’ depth might be even further when Harris lay on the court in pain with 11:19 left in the third quarter. He eventually got up and walked off gingerly with head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson into the locker room.

Harris returned a few minutes later. He was very sharp, too. The 30-year-old forward capitalized on a Nets transition defense breakdown, driving in for a dunk.

When the Sixers isolated him against O’Neale, Harris methodically backed O’Neale down in a way the team doesn’t tend to encourage when everyone’s healthy, then sunk a short jumper that capped a 7-0 run. He embraced being the Sixers’ No. 1 offensive option in the second half. Harris made an important pull-up jumper with four seconds to go in the third, putting the Sixers ahead 85-82.

In the fourth, Harris extended the Sixers’ lead to 10 points with his first three of the night. Harris also showed off a fair amount of his old-school tools, playing a physical, grind-it-out game. That was entirely appropriate for the circumstances, and the Sixers did well to recognize that Harris deserved touches on just about every possession.

Milton then took the reins to extinguish any Nets comeback hopes, drilling two jumpers and scoring a put-back layup that prompted Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn to call a timeout and insert his deep reserves.

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