"It was a good environment to start," Nets star Kevin Durant said. "It didn't finish that way."
Making his first appearance in Philadelphia since requesting a trade over the summer, Simmons was showered with boos from a fan base that had waited over nine months to express its frustration to him following his rough performance during an unexpected playoff exit at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks last May in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The jeers rained down on Simmons from the moment he set foot on the floor during pregame warm-ups. The former All-Star spent about 20 minutes helping warm up Patty Mills, rebounding and passing to the veteran guard.
The only time Sixers fans cheered with Simmons on the floor was when he threw down a dunk in the midst of warming up Mills. Simmons passed up an open dunk in Game 7 against the Hawks, a play that was replayed throughout the summer and seen as a major breaking point in his relationship with the Sixers and their fan base.
Simmons, who was sent to Brooklyn along with Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two future first-round picks in exchange for James Harden and Paul Millsap at last month's trade deadline, walked back on the floor as the Sixers were being introduced just before the game. Once the introductions were complete and the lights in the building came back on, fans started to realize Simmons was on the Nets' bench and booed loudly once more.
All the hoopla that surrounded the game appeared to focus the Nets from the start. Kyrie Irving, Durant and Curry were locked in from the beginning, combining for 49 of Brooklyn's 71 first-half points. For a team that came into the game having lost 17 of its previous 21, the win served as a reminder of just how dangerous the Nets still believe they can be if and when they are healthy and whole. This was the team's most complete, and most important, victory of the season to date.
Durant admitted after the game that the Nets were "most definitely" playing for Simmons because he couldn't be out there with them.
"I think all of us were," Durant said. "We look at Ben as our brother, so we knew that this was a hostile environment and we knew that he didn't have the opportunity to play and we wanted to come out there and have [the fans] focus on the court, more so than always focusing on him. So they focused on the court tonight, and it's hard for you to chant at Ben Simmons when you're losing by that much."
Irving also said the Nets had a little extra motivation because of the emotion of the night.
"I think playing for Ben and the night meaning something to Ben and not only Ben, but 'Dre, Seth," Irving said. "When you get traded in this league, it's not easy to deal with. And you pick up your stuff that you've made a home out of; you're in one city and then you have to transfer to another city, it's not always easy, so we've tried to welcome him in with open arms.
"So when we played tonight, we definitely felt like Ben was on our heart. You could see it, he was wearing it, and we just wanted to go out there and play for him and play well. ... If you come at Ben, you come at us. You come at anyone else on our team, you come at all of us, and that's the mentality."
Simmons, who nodded several times on the bench while listening to "F--- Ben Simmons!" chants from the crowd, sat next to Mills for much of the night while cheering on his teammates. There was an extra security presence around the Nets' bench, with one extra guard stationed halfway up each section to make sure fans closer to Simmons didn't get unruly.
Fans remained mostly quiet in the second half as the Sixers continued getting blown out, but they saved an extra round of boos for Simmons when he picked up a ball that had gone out of bounds with just over eight minutes left. Fans yelled one more time, while many on the Nets' bench smiled and offered Simmons high-fives at the end of the team's most joyous night in two months. The night closed with Nets fans showering Simmons with a celebratory "Ben Simmons!" near the team's bench as his teammates smiled and clapped.
While it remains unclear when Simmons will be able to make his season debut as he continues to deal with a back issue, the Nets are hopeful he will be able to take part in some of Saturday's practice as a first real step toward getting back on the floor. The organization also remains hopeful that New York City Mayor Eric Adams will decide to pull back the city's vaccination mandate and that Irving, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, will be able to play in home games and be a full-time player again.
Both Durant, who finished with a team-high 25 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, and Irving, who finished with 22 points, five assists and four rebounds, also got a small measure of revenge against Harden, after the All-Star guard decided he didn't want to be part of the Nets anymore. The duo dominated the offensive tempo all night and limited Harden to a 3-for-17 performance, including 0-for-10 on 2-pointers, and 11 points.
"Just taking the assignment," Irving said of his defense on Harden. "And doing what I could to make it tough on him. Obviously, James is not always going to shoot like that. But I just wanted to make it tough, get in his airspace, commit to really being in the right positions often ... taking the challenge.
"That's fun as a competitor. I always say I relish in those moments and I'm grateful I get a chance to go against other great players. And really go at them and they go at me."
The win provided another reason so many in the organization are still confident the Nets' championship dreams can be reached this season. Durant and Irving are playing at a very high level, and the Nets believe Simmons can quickly return to his old form. He cleared an important part of his journey simply by sitting on the bench Thursday night.
The win also meant a little more to the Nets because of the emotions involved in seeing Harden again and the return that Simmons had to face, but Durant wants his team to remain focused as it continues to try to build some momentum before the playoffs begin.
"Did we win a championship tonight? No," Durant said, trying to tamp down the meaning of a regular-season win. "Did we clinch a playoff spot? No. For you guys on the outside with the whole James situation and just the entertainment aspect of it, I'm sure it was bigger. But for us, we move on to the next one."
Simmons walks out to boos from Philly crowd
Walking out for pregame warmups, Ben Simmons is greeted with boos from the 76ers crowd.