Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid finally face each other as opponents

Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid finally face each other as opponents

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  • January 26, 2023
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Tim Bontemps ESPN

PHILADELPHIA — Fans here in the city of brotherly love have waited nearly a year for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to face each other as opponents in an NBA game for the first time.

It didn’t disappoint.

Before a sell-out crowd at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night, it was the 76ers who earned a thrilling 137-133 win over the Brooklyn Nets — though the result was just a backdrop to the ongoing drama as Simmons and Embiid finally faced each other.

“Nothing,” Embiid said when asked how it felt to face Simmons for the first time. “Like every single night [I am trying to] just kill anyone in front of me. My mentality is always about goals. If I’m doubled, make the right pass, but if I’m played one-on-one or I see an opportunity to score, I’ll score.

Just a minute into the game, Embiid aggressively posted Simmons – the first of three post-ups he attempted to perform on his former teammate.

And while none of them made a basket – missing a shot, being stripped or fouled respectively – it set the tone for the night as the crowd roared for each of them.

“The first game was Ben guarding Joel and it was like a party,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers later said, laughing. “It was hilarious. That’s when I turned to our coaches and said, ‘This is a boxing crowd tonight. They want to see them drop the basketball, turn around and challenge it.’

“And [Simmons and Embiid] attacked each other, it’s fun and it’s good.”

The 76ers’ Joel Embiid (left) and the Nets’ Ben Simmons chat before the second half of Wednesday’s game. They faced each other as opponents for the first time in an NBA game. AP Photo/Matt Slocum

It had been 583 days since the two former co-stars had shared that — or any other — spot. That day – Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks – will be remembered in these parts not only for the loss of Philadelphia, but also for the way it played out. It’s particularly memorable that Simmons missed an open dunk in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.

Someone without any context about Wednesday’s game would understandably have been mistaken for believing that it was also a playoff contest. Every time Simmons got the ball, a wall of noise was thrown his way – just like it always does when he and Embiid compete in any context.

But that energy stretched well beyond the two former co-stars, resulting in a total of 45 fouls, seven technical errors — six against players and a seventh for a game delay — 63 free throws and 27 turnovers.

“It wasn’t the prettiest,” said James Harden, “but we’ll take it.”

Harden, like Embiid, tried to downplay the importance of the game against his former teammates. So did Kevin Durant – who remains sidelined with an MCL sprain – on Tuesday, who said rivalries “are not really a thing” in the NBA these days.

But everyone’s actions on Wednesday said otherwise, and Rivers himself admitted he thought his team had been caught up in all the energy and excitement surrounding Simmons and Embiid when they finally went head-to-head.

“I thought the team as a whole did it,” Rivers said. “We got caught up in all the crap that happened tonight. There was a lot of chippiness, and that’s good, but play over it, stay over it. Keep playing. I didn’t think we did that.”

Embiid finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 34 minutes, while Simmons had 12 points – all in the second half – with five rebounds and five assists.

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Simmons looked like a very different and more aggressive player in the second half, having only made one attempt in the first half – a half-hearted hook shot close to Embiid that came up short.

“He just made a choice,” said Kyrie Irving, who had game bests with 30 points and 10 assists. “He just made the decision to put his head down, be aggressive for our team and we need him to do that. I just came on the bench and encouraged him like we do every day, so when he’s aggressive like Ben Simmons, we look very, very good and it gives us opportunities that sometimes we don’t get when he’s there is not. So we’re just going to keep supporting him and only him to keep him doing that.

But while Simmons was more aggressive in the second half, he found himself rooted on the bench for the final 8 minutes and 57 seconds – a stretch that saw Brooklyn erasing a 14-point deficit with an 18-4 run to get there Balance score and turn the goal into a roller coaster ride for hometown fans. Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said Simmons was benched to give Brooklyn more shooting and space on the court.

The game was finally decided when De’Anthony Melton, again starting in place of Tyrese Maxey, converted two free throws with 12.4 seconds left and Embiid stole the subsequent inbounds pass. It was Philadelphia’s sixth straight win, and the 76ers retained lone second place in the Eastern Conference ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Nets are 2-5 since Durant left the lineup with his injury.

But after so much hype and build-up for Simmons and Embiid to finally share the court together, Rivers was happy he and his team were able to put the game behind them.

“Now,” he said with a smile, “we can return to regular programs.”

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