Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Prior to the opening tip between the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets on Thursday night, Ben Simmons was the lead story and the sole recipient of the raucous Philly crowd’s ire.
After it, Simmons was barely a footnote (and far from the only party showered with boos) in what’s quickly become the NBA‘s most heated rivalry.
The Nets beat the Sixers 129-100 with Simmons watching from the bench as his new team shredded his old one from start to finish. And before anyone jumps up to sarcastically observe that a blowout of this magnitude only counts as a rivalry in a hammer-and-nail sort of way, keep in mind that an embarrassing home beating like this is exactly the kind of thing that puts vengeance on the mind of the defeated.
The vitriol that defines this matchup originated in the trade that sent Simmons to Brooklyn for a disgruntled and checked-out Harden. But all the new dynamics that emerged on Thursday added layers—emotional, strategic, even legacy-defining if you want to think as big as possible—to a rivalry that could (and hopefully will) only intensify with time.
We have to start with Harden who, at least for one night, had to add Philadelphia to Houston and Brooklyn on the list of locales that can’t stand him.
Sluggish, unable to grift his way to the foul line and looking every bit as disengaged as he did in his final days with the Nets, Harden shot just 3-of-17 from the field and turned the ball over four times. It was brutal to watch, but unfortunately for Sixers fans who’d been enjoying his dominant play over the first five games with the team, not out of character for the 2018 MVP.
This was a massive game. TNT’s Stephanie Ready reported pregame it was the “most in-demand ticket in the last decade” in Philly, and “that includes playoff games.”
Harden, notoriously, wilts when the lights are brightest and the pressure to perform is most intense. That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact supported by deep-dive Twitter threads and the raw numbers that show his shooting dips in the playoffs. Harden-as-choker is not a “take.” It is part of the accepted discourse on, to be fair, an otherwise really great player.
Add Thursday’s non-compete to the list.
Now imagine the vibe in Philadelphia if Harden underperforms whenever these teams meet next—hopefully in a playoff series. After that, consider how he’ll be received in Brooklyn.
More practically, think of the confidence it gives the Nets in the event of a rematch. Try to avoid whiplash while turning your thoughts back to the Sixers again. What questions are Joel Embiid and Daryl Morey, who targeted his old Houston superstar throughout the Simmons saga, asking themselves?
Harden’s struggles in Thursday’s contest stood out most, and they loom large in this clash of star-laden teams. But they were far from the only rivalry-enriching facet of the proceedings.
Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant jawed at one another repeatedly, neither alpha willing to relent in the early going.
Embiid was as dominant as someone can be on 5-of-17 shooting, overpowering multiple defenders and bullying Andre Drummond while racking up heaps of first-quarter free throws.
He finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds, ultimately getting to the line 19 times, despite constant double-teams and no help from his teammates or his coach.
Doc Rivers’ tactics warranted plenty of criticism, drawing attention to a history of big-game blunders as substantial as Harden’s.
Mike O’Connor @MOConnor_NBA
(Cannot stress how bad this game plan was though. Blitzing KD from 30 feet is nuts with all the shooting they have. BKN has a zillion bad defenders and yet you’re running Harden through 50 Iverson cuts. Just let him pick a mismatch and ISO like he’s been doing for 10 years!)
Had anyone else on the Sixers been able to exploit the attention Embiid drew, this game could have gone differently. Should these two teams meet again, Rivers and the role players surrounding Embiid will have everything to prove.
On the other side, Durant operated as if he was the one looking to prove something. Dialed all the way in, KD piled up 25 points, 14 boards and seven assists. He was the best player on a floor that featured another former MVP and the guy many expect to win the award this year, and he did it with lethal ease.
It was supposed to be the hot-shooting, finesse-first Nets who’d struggle to contain the Sixers’ attack. But Brooklyn brought more defensive heat, and it was Philly that lacked answers for Durant and, not to be forgotten, human skills clinic Kyrie Irving, who smoothly contributed 22 points and hit five of his 11 long-range tries.
Oh, right! What about Simmons!?
Who knows what he might add to a potential playoff series?
Would his shooting struggles and late-game hesitancy hold Brooklyn back? Or would his rebounding, defensive versatility and transition brilliance tip the scales further in the Nets’ favor? How chippy might things get on the floor, and how much louder would the boos grow—assuming Sixers fans weren’t booing Harden instead, or Tobias Harris, or Rivers, or a vendor who dropped a kernel of popcorn by accident? It’s Philly, remember? Don’t put anything past it.
This was a game with playoff-caliber intensity in the lead-up. Almost all of that had to do with Simmons sitting on the bench in an arena full of fans hellbent on letting him know how angry they are at him.
Though it was decided early (Brooklyn went up 40-23 at the end of the first and never looked back), the only thing this game did was add fuel to a fire that was already scorching hot. Now, we’ve got new angles, more bad blood and louder trash talk.
This isn’t just about Simmons anymore, and if you want to zoom all the way out, what happened on Thursday suggests that going forward, we should probably ditch the idea that all this player movement and lack of year-to-year roster continuity makes rivalries impossible.
It only took the Nets and Sixers one game to build what feels like a potential all-timer of a feud.