NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving returned from his eight-game suspension Sunday night at Barclays Center for the Brooklyn Nets against the Memphis Grizzlies, but it was Ben Simmons who was the star of the show on the court.
Playing alongside Irving and Kevin Durant for just the seventh time, Simmons had his third straight good individual performance in what was easily his best game since the end of the 2020-21 NBA season, finishing with 22 points on 11-for-13 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists in Brooklyn’s 127-115 victory.
“I’m just staying focused,” Simmons said. “I’m taking it day by day. That’s honestly what it is. I’ve got to take it day by day.
“Me personally, if I start reading everything that’s going on and getting psyched out, that’s not good for me. So for me, I just want to stay focused, take it day by day, and I keep saying it but that’s what it is for me. Just keep building on good days and staying locked in.”
That has certainly been the case over the past week, as Simmons — who scored in single digits in each of his first eight games this season — built off better performances on the road against Sacramento and Portland last week with his best game, by far, in a Nets uniform back home in front of Brooklyn’s fans Sunday night.
After looking hesitant to shoot at times earlier in the season, Simmons attacked the basket time and again against the Grizzlies — who were without stars Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. due to injuries — with a verve and aggression that stood out to everyone watching.
“I think immediately you saw force that he played with whether it was his pace and his attack of the rim, and it was a relentless attack towards the rim and really just spraying the basketball [around],” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “The pace that he created for us tonight, it will make it hard for people to guard us.”
Now, though, the focus for Simmons and the Nets will shift to Tuesday night, when they will head down Interstate 95 to face Simmons’ old team, the Philadelphia 76ers, in what will be the first time Simmons will play at Wells Fargo Center as a visitor.
Asked about his emotions going back to Philadelphia, Simmons smiled.
“I’m ready to play,” he said, before adding, “Something going on?” as the room broke into laughter.
Then, asked about whether enough time has passed for the bad feelings from his departure to simmer down in the City of Brotherly Love, Simmons had an incredulous look on his face before the question was even finished.
“In Philly?” Simmons said, drawing more laughs. “I know what’s coming. That’s part of the game. Philly fans, one thing about Philly fans is they are incredible. They are die-hard Philly and they are everything Philly, whatever it is. I respect that about the city. It’s a sports town. I was talking to I think Yuta [Watanabe] before the game about what it’s like to play in Philly, and it’s an incredible opportunity to put on whatever jersey it is.
“That’s Philly, and it’s a unique experience.”
It’s the one Simmons assuredly has waiting for him Tuesday. When the Nets visited last season after the Simmons-James Harden swap and he was only on the bench in street clothes, boos rained down upon his head. There’s little doubt there will be an even more boisterous response when Simmons takes the court for the first time — especially with Simmons, often playing center for the Nets these days, likely having to spend time guarding former co-star Joel Embiid.
But Simmons, who said Brooklyn would likely “have to send four guys” at Embiid to attempt to slow him down, said that while he knows how the fans will react to him, he still appreciates the only city he’d lived in as an adult up until being traded to Brooklyn in February.
“I was 18 years old coming into Philly, so it’s really the only place I’ve lived as an adult. So I have a lot of love for that city,” he said. “People don’t know that, but a lot of my best friends are from Philadelphia. My brother still lives in Philadelphia. So regardless of the situation, whatever happened, happened. But I got a lot of love for that city still, so I look forward to going down there and playing.”
And now that Simmons is playing well, the Nets are looking forward to seeing if he can continue to play this way.
One person who isn’t getting excited about how Simmons looks, though, is Durant.
“I expect this from Ben,” Durant said, “So when he plays well, I’m not going to get excited about it.”