Ben Simmons and the Nets’ loser energy were no match for a Sixers team that taught its injured stars a lesson

by 24USATVNov. 23, 2022, 10:21 a.m. 14
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Loser energy is a difficult thing to overcome. One team had it. The other team had the opposite. Ben Simmons and two future Hall of Famers were on the first team. James Harden and Joel Embiid were not on the second. Somewhere within all of those facts is a lesson.

They say that the NBA is a star-driven league, and it is. A team can win a lot of games playing the brand of basketball that the Sixers played in a 115-106 win over the Nets on Tuesday night, but it won’t win any championships. That’s as close to a universal truth as it gets, whatever the purists would like to believe. Doc Rivers knows it. Daryl Morey knows it. Embiid, Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving — all of them know it. Simmons probably knows it, whether or not he cares.

Yet there is another part of the equation. It’s the thing that we saw from the shorthanded Sixers as they bounced off the ropes and never stopped swinging on Tuesday night. It’s the thing that too often goes missing with their stars in the game. It’s the thing that the Nets have never had.

Energy. Pace. Physicality. Will. Synergy. Put them in a package and call it whatever you like. That is why the Sixers were able to overcome the absence of their top three scorers against an opponent that featured two of the top scorers in the sport. It is why they were able to overcome an eight-point first-quarter deficit and blitz the Nets on both ends of the court. For 48 minutes, they never slowed down. They never stopped.

“It’s contagious,” said Tobias Harris, who scored 24 points on 10-of-21 shooting and carried a heavy load in the second half. “When the ball is moving like that and it touches everyone’s hands, it allows guys to get more in the flow out there and have more confidence and let the ball go and shoot it like they know how to shoot it.”

» READ MORE: Shorthanded Sixers do the unthinkable to Ben Simmons and the Nets — win, 115-106

The Sixers played like a contagion. You could almost see the transfer of energy from one player to another. Forty seconds into the second half, Harris limped off the court and into the locker room. Five minutes later, he was throwing down a dunk off a pass from Shake Milton. A few possessions later, Milton was knocking down a 27-foot three-pointer that ended an 8-0 Nets run and put the Sixers back in front. There was Paul Reed, grabbing a defensive rebound and then getting three second-chance points on the other end of the court. His free throw gave the Sixers an 83-79 lead. They never trailed again.

There are times where the only thing they seem to have in common is their uniforms. That wasn’t the case on this particular night. They were something much greater than five similarly dressed individuals. They played with no boundaries. They covered the court in blue.

That wasn’t the case for the other team. This was a night that was supposed to be about Simmons. In some ways, it was. If a guy plays against his old team, but his old team isn’t there, does it really count? Turns out, the answer is, well, kind of.

The juicy stuff was dead on arrival. The absence of Embiid, sidelined with a foot injury, eliminated most the comeuppance the Sixers had to deliver. The absence of Harden limited their ability to show Simmons how thoroughly they’d moved on. There were plenty of boos, but they did not match the intensity of those that had greeted the Sixers’ former No. 1 overall pick when he returned last season in street clothes. The vitriol registered something more than obligatory, but something less than homicidal.

Simmons is never not going to be a thing when he comes to Philadelphia, mostly because he is the sort of person who needs to be a thing. Which is baffling, because he is also the sort of person who doesn’t know how to be it. After hitting a pair of free throws in front of the booing crowd, he mimicked Michael Jordan’s famous palms-up shrug. After getting hit by a Georges Niang forearm that drew a flagrant foul, he averted eye contact and walked back to his bench, and only then started jawing. Most of the great ones project an immunity to their surroundings that Simmons simply does not have. Some people can dance like nobody’s watching. Others don’t have it in them.

By the fourth quarter, Simmons had faded so far into the background that he seemed to take the rest of his team with him. Or, more likely, they all arrived independently. Maybe the Nets are his perfect spot.

“I feel like I’m in a good place to come in here and just play basketball,” Simmons said. “I’m happy. I’m doing what I love, so being able to be out there and experience it was amazing.”

Mostly, Simmons’ return served as a reminder of what the Sixers lacked when he was here. Part of that is a simple function of a roster that is deeper and more skilled than those of previous years. In De’Anthony Melton, they have a legitimate two-way combo guard, one who is capable of scoring 22 points and knocking down six threes while running point on offense and doing a little bit of everything on the other end of the court. Melton did all of these things against the Nets. He was as big of a factor as any in the win.

But there was something else there, something greater than the sum of its parts. The additions of P.J. Tucker and Montrezl Harrell and the emergence of Paul Reed have combined to give them a level of physicality that did not previously exist when Embiid was on the sideline. Melton had a hand in that, too. It manifested in Harris’ gritty 24-point performance, in the 21 minutes that Furkan Korkmaz played where the Sixers outscored the Nets by 12. You saw it late in the fourth quarter when Milton sprinted the full length of the court after Melton stole an inbounds pass. Melton missed the transition layup, but Milton arrived just in time to grab the rebound and put it back for a bucket that gave the Sixers a 14-point lead.

» READ MORE: A timeline of Ben Simmons’ rift with the Sixers

“Whether they played well or not, our guys are going to compete, and you saw that,” Rivers said.

Before the game, Rivers half-jokingly said that one of the benefits of having three injured stars is that they’ll get to rehab together. An even bigger benefit might be the time they get to spend watching the way their teammates play basketball without them.

It’s on Rivers to mold these pieces into a defense whose technical execution matches its hustle. It’s on Embiid to play with an energy level that consistently matches those beneath him on the depth chart. It’s on Harden to recognize the impact that ball movement and a frenetic pace can have on a game.

On Tuesday night, the only thing the Sixers were missing were their superstars. Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

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