Friday, January 27 2023
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Ben Simmons played his best game of the season on Thursday night, and the Brooklyn Nets stuck together for a 109-107 win at Portland that felt like it could be the start of something. Kyrie Irving returns Sunday, and with Simmons, who finished with a near triple-double registering 15 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists against Portland, starting, slowly, to look like the player we all thought he could be in this particular ecosystem, the time is now for the Nets to start making a move. 

Simmons was a plus-13 in his 32 minutes on Thursday, second only to Kevin Durant’s plus-15. Sometimes, often even, single-game point differentials are meaningless. Not this one. Outside of Durant, Simmons was the most impactful player on the court, though we would be remiss not to shout out Yuta Watanabe, who finished with a season-high 20 points on five 3-pointers, and Royce O’Neale, who posted an 11-11-10 triple-double and defended the hell out of Damian Lillard

If Twitter is still alive, go search Simmons and Lillard and you’re going to find a bunch of tweets talking about the former “locking up” the latter. It’s not true. Simmons rarely guarded Lillard, who needed 24 shots to get his 25 points, and when he did he soft switched almost every time when the Blazers ball screened. Simmons did chase Lillard around more in the fourth quarter, and he did put real pressure on him over a few possessions. 

Still, it was O’Neale, who has been fantastic for Brooklyn all season, who did the most and best work on Lillard, and he should be recognized for it. Brooklyn’s defense as a whole was terrific, connected and energetic all night. Durant was a big part of that. He is defending, rebounding, and of course scoring at an MVP level this season. Jerami Grant was all over Durant for most of the game, and KD still put up 34 on 22 shots. He’s the reason we’re all unwilling to count the Nets out. 

But Simmons is the real key. Kyrie is going to be Kyrie if he can keep his mouth shut and just play basketball, but Simmons is the one who changes the calculus, who unlocks defensive lineups and pushes pace, who can generate overall energy that Brooklyn needs on a nightly basis. He did all of that on Thursday. 

As soon as he entered the game, he saw an open lane in early offense and rolled right into a post-up bucket. 

Here he catches as a trailer and, again, attacks the lane, hitting Jusuf Nurkic, who’s on an island, with a silky Eurostep. 

Twice he created a transition 3-pointer by pushing the pace, looking for shooters before the defense could set, which is contagious. Look at the ball pop between Joe Harris and O’Neale once Simmons gets the sequence started. 

The spacing issue Simmons presents in the half court is always a concern, especially when he plays with NIc Claxton, but he can find ways to impact possessions if he’s engaged and active as a screener, (short) roller and cutter. Here he flows into and plays hot potato with Joe Harris then immediately flashes to a wide-open lane because the Nets, as they can do with multiple lineups, are spaced perfectly with four shooters who demand coverage around the arc. 

This time, in a similar look, Simmons fakes the DHO with Seth Curry and hits Kevin Durant on a backdoor cut with the type of instinctual, anticipatory play for which we so often laud Draymond Green

Speaking of Draymond, he’s made a living making plays for shooters out of short rolls when Stephen Curry gets doubled. We have all wanted to see Simmons operating in this kind of space, and here he does it perfectly, rolling to an open middle when two defenders jump at Durant and quickly kicking to O’Neale in the corner. 

O’Neale missed the shot, but that’s a winning and repeatable play for Simmons and the Nets. No matter what Simmons is doing, or what spots on the floor he’s occupying, the key is to be in downhill attack mode. As long as he’s doing that, defenses will honor him and that creates lanes for others. Below, Simmons screens for Curry, then flows right into a DHO with Durant, and by committing to a hard roll, he forces Nurkic to slide over just a step to cut him off, and that’s all Durant needs for a clear avenue to the rim. 

Twice Simmons set a pin-in screen to open up a corner 3-point shooter from opposite dunker spots. He was aggressive defensively, defending mostly centers and, as mentioned above, tracking Lillard diligently for a stretch of the fourth quarter. The Blazers went to a hack-a-Simmons strategy in the fourth quarter and he converted three of four free throws on consecutive trips, and it scared Portland out of doing it anymore. In general, Simmons attacked whatever space was in front of him, both in transition and in the half court. 

These are small hurdles, but Simmons has not scored in double digits in two straight games, though nobody was all that excited about his 11 in a loss to the Kings, who hung 153 points on the Nets. Still, these are positive steps. Thursday was a big step. All things considered, Simmons looked like he rounded a potentially meaningful corner against the Blazers. 

It’s only one game, but confidence comes and goes quickly. He’s made 11 of his last 13 shots. He’s feeling good. The Nets have looked enthused for Jacque Vaughn. Joe Harris found his stroke against the Blazers. There are, dare I say, some actual good vibes coming out of Brooklyn. If Irving can manage not to squash then in his return, the Nets might be able to get this thing together after all. 



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