March 09, 2022
I'm not sure if you've heard, but the Sixers play a basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, a meeting that is expected to be equal parts sporting event and three-ring circus. For many observers around the league, the off-court angles and the reception for Ben Simmons in street clothes is a bigger deal than the meeting on the floor.
Mercifully, the basketball team from Philadelphia doesn't feel the same way, and they have prepared for the meeting with Brooklyn the way they have any/every other game this season.
"We didn't even mention tomorrow one time today," Doc Rivers said Wednesday. "Tomorrow is going to come, and we're going to play Brooklyn, there will be a lot said about it, then it's going to go and it's over. You know? Tomorrow, there's no trophy given after the game, there's nothing given except for there's going to be a game."
"It's obviously a different game with what's going on, but as far as the basketball part of it, we have to focus on that. We've had some interesting games against them before the trade. There's been a little extra stuff on the floor before the trade. It'll just be more of that. I think that's good."
With 18 games left to play, it's the Sixers and not the Nets who look to be on a title contention trajectory. Philadelphia is eight full games ahead of the .500 Nets in the standings, within shouting distance of the first-place Heat even if getting to that spot feels unrealistic before the season ends. One team is fighting to try to get out of the play-in tournament, and it isn't Philadelphia.
That doesn't mean the Sixers are short on questions to answer between now and April 16th. If anything, Philadelphia has more pressure and urgency to become the best version of itself, with a realistic shot at a title now in view on the horizon. Concerns that have popped up early in the James Harden era — defensive toughness and the long-standing rebounding problem especially — will be discussed, debated, and drilled whenever the Sixers have a moment of free time to spare.
Whatever you think of the respective title chances for these teams, the Nets are a stress test for Philadelphia's defense, spearheaded by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and flanked by a gallery of shooters. The Sixers seem to be short on options against a team with multiple high-level guys on the perimeter, with Joel Embiid's rim protection ability only going so far to slow them down.
One thing the Sixers won't do is pretend this game is just another day at the office, or that it's only a rivalry because they play in the same division and have the same goals.
"If I were to say [it's just another game] I would be lying," Tyrese Maxey said Wednesday.
How exactly does one prepare for a game of this magnitude? When Maxey was playing away games for John Calipari at Kentucky, he says the Wildcats would bus around town and get a view of the students who would camp out for tickets. Every game with Kentucky as the visitor, Maxey says, was the Super Bowl for the hosting team, and they had to go into every hostile environment anticipating that level of energy and competitiveness from the whole building, not just the players on the floor.
In some respects, Joel Embiid did the rest of the guys on this team a favor when he laid out his thoughts on Simmons as he went out the door, saving them the time and the breath it would take to explain their feelings. Not everybody in the locker room feels the same way about their departed ally — Maxey and Simmons share an agency, obviously, and the younger guard still considers their relationship a source of brotherhood, though he says they haven't spoken since Simmons left town.
Everyone else is mostly biting their tongue for the time being, not especially eager to provide the Nets with bulletin board material or interject where they feel their voice isn't needed. Backup forward Georges Niang, for example, never had the chance to play with Simmons after arriving here last offseason. Holding back his innermost feelings, Niang ultimately fell on the side of staying out of it.
"It is what it is, we have who we have in this locker room," Niang said when asked if the locker room had a level of dislike beyond the normal competitive athlete level. "But I think we’re happy with who we have in this locker room. I’m just going to leave it at that."
"He knows what he did, or what he had to do to get himself right, whether that’s right, wrong or indifferent, that’s not my place to speak on. Obviously, I have my thoughts about Ben, but if he’s happy where he’s at, then let him be happy. We’re happy we have guys in this locker room that want to be here."
By this time on Friday, Ringling Bros. will have left town, and all that will be left is a win or a loss in the standings. The Sixers are trying to keep sight of that, though whether they can will ultimately be proven on the floor Thursday night.
• Doc Rivers said at practice on Wednesday that Danny Green is, "out until you see him again" after the veteran wing suffered a finger laceration in their win over the Chicago Bulls on Monday. According to a source familiar with the situation, the Sixers will likely be without Green for at least a week, as the laceration on his hand required stitches in a spot that is at additional risk of being torn back open. While an optimistic timeline might put him back on the floor after just a couple of missed games, it's more likely we'll get a bigger look at Isaiah Joe in the days to come, the second-year player getting a real chance to stick in the rotation.
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