Ben Simmons looks terrific in return; Nets look like a different team with pace being pushed

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Ben Simmons came up two rebounds shy of a triple-double in his return from a near three-month absence on Monday. Simmons recorded 10 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in the Nets’ 147-114 victory over the Jazz, and he needed only 18 minutes to do it.  He did not miss a shot, finishing 5 for 5 from the field. 

Simmons had been out since November 6 while battling a nerve impingement in his lower back. He has dealt with back issues for his entire Brooklyn tenure — a tenure that has been marked by just 48 games over the last two seasons. Hopefully he can stay on the court for a consistent stretch moving forward, because the Nets, who had lost seven of their last nine games entering play on Monday, looked like a different team with Simmons pushing the pace. 

“Other people played so well tonight because of the impact of Ben Simmons,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “The looks that we got tonight, the amount of 3s that we got tonight, the fast-break points that we got tonight, the uncontested looks that we got tonight, the pace that we played with … Ben deserves an extreme amount of credit for the way he played tonight.”

(Side note: I don’t mean to be a buzz kill, but at least three of Simmons’ 11 recorded assists were bogus; it should not be a credited as an assist just because you pass to a guy who then makes a series of different moves to create his own bucket.)

Still, the general point stands. Simmons got everything moving, and the Nets, not coincidentally, wound up with a season-high 41 assists and 21 made 3-pointers. Most of Simmons’ legit assists came in transition, speeding ahead to find shooters and cutters before the defense could match up. 

All five of Simmons’ buckets were at the rim: a couple put-backs, one drop-off lay-in from the dunker’s spot, a tough lob that he guided in off the glass, and the steal and slam that made all the social media rounds. 

“As soon as I checked in, I told them, ‘You know what time it is,'” said Simmons, who also noted that “it’s always a fast break when I have the ball.” 

It’s true. Simmons loves to push, whether on his own or with hit-ahead passes, and he’s great at it. He’s a top-tier defender when he’s comfortable. The jokes write themselves with how much time he’s missed and how far he’s fallen from his All-Star past, but he can obviously still impact NBA games at a high level. 

Whether he can stay on the court consistently is another question. Simmons, at least, believes the Nets have his back, which surely goes a long way after the turbulence — much of it self inflicted, to be fair — that he’s endured since the end of his Philadelphia run. 

“This is probably one of the best teams in terms of friendships that I’ve been a part of,” Simmons said. “Everyone gets along, we don’t have egos… For me to be able to be in an environment like this is amazing… So I’m happy.”