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January 26, 2023

Emotions run high in Sixers' win over Ben Simmons, Brooklyn Nets

The Sixers can say whatever they want to the media about the meaning of playing Ben Simmons and the Brooklyn Nets, spinning yarns about how this is just another game and that the focus is on team objectives. All you had to do was watch a few minutes of Wednesday night's game to get a feel for how this rivalry is going to look moving forward.

Emotions run deep here. Deep enough that Georges Niang — who played exactly zero minutes with Simmons in Philadelphia — spent most of his minutes throwing his full body weight into Simmons, goading Simmons into a tech during a heated, fourth-quarter battle in the post. Throughout the night, Philadelphia put a little bit extra into screens on Simmons, perhaps getting away with a hip check or two while trying to beat him to spots.

"But there's a difference between intensity, playing with emotion, and playing too emotional. And I thought, honestly, our side of it, we were on the wrong side of that a lot tonight," Doc Rivers said following the win.

"We have to be better as far as handling our emotions in games like that. It's good to have emotion, you want to. You want to have intensity and emotion, but you don't want to be emotional."

You could hardly blame the players for getting swept up in the moment. The first time Embiid caught the ball on the block with Simmons on his hip, the sold-out crowd offered a rousing ovation. Those kept coming throughout the night, with Rivers likening the atmosphere to a boxing fight, guessing the fans would have liked to see Embiid and Simmons square up rather than play basketball.

"Philly fans, I think y'all are relentless," De'Anthony Melton said with a laugh, "especially on your former players no matter what. It was fun to see."

Simmons probably would have preferred a street fight to a basketball game. For whatever issues he had looking at the rim, he seemed ready to mix it up from the get-go, throwing his weight around with shots from teammates in the air.

(I need every single morsel I can get on the beef history between these two. Did Simmons prank call Niang late at night during Sixers road trips last season? Did Niang trash-talk this guy to the point of humiliation in the practice Simmons got thrown out of last year? I would believe almost anything.)

Chippiness was the rule, not an exception. It nearly spilled over into something a bit more serious in the first quarter. Embiid found himself in a war of words with Nic Claxton, jawing with Brooklyn's starting center for several minutes before a double-tech was issued during a free-throw stoppage.

It was the only emotional sequence of the game Embiid was willing to offer insight into, and even then, he left the audience wanting more.

"He said something he shouldn't have, that's why when I walked up to his face I told him to say it to my face again. That's why he looked away, and he didn't say it again, because he knows why," Embiid said. "There's not a lot of times where I get in those situations, but I'm not going to allow any sort of disrespect. That's why he couldn't say it to my face again."

Philadelphia's stars would eventually posit that this was just another game, the problem with that assessment being that we had all watched it. The question from here on out: is this all out of their systems, or a sign of physical battles to come?

James Harden has had to absorb a flurry of passive-aggressive shots from Nets players in the year since leaving Brooklyn and has as much justification to air grievances as anybody. But he basically scoffed at questions about this growing rivalry and the stakes at hand as if it was silly to even ask.

"For me, it's a game," Harden told reporters on Wednesday. "I'm trying to win the game, I don't care about all that other stuff. That's for everybody else."

On Rivers' end, the vocalized hope is that this specific meeting, the first between Embiid and Simmons specifically, is enough to dampen the emotions moving forward. It's not an absurd premise, because if we simply look at the atmosphere for Simmons' initial return compared to now, it has gotten better for the former Sixers guard, not worse. Thousands showed up to boo him in warm-ups last spring for a game he didn't even play in. Wednesday night, Simmons was able to prepare for the game in relative anonymity, holding court with a few friends and Sixers employees before going through his pre-game routine 90 minutes before tipoff.

If the Sixers don't find some restraint, they could find themselves on the wrong end of games that matter against Brooklyn. They were lucky to survive this one, a fact that the numbers drive home — Brooklyn's shooting percentage in the loss (64.8) is the third-best mark in NBA history in a defeat. A near-perfect night from the charity stripe, a very good shooting night of their own, and late-game shotmaking from Harden is all that saved them from defeat. 

The Sixers didn't kid themselves about that remarkable number from Brooklyn. They offered a tip of the cap to Brooklyn's shooters and some heroic Kyrie Irving shotmaking but made sure to note their crimes in help defense, mistakes they know could be punished even worse if Kevin Durant was available to play. This game, like so many others for Philly between now and mid-April, was both an opportunity and a potential trapdoor. The Sixers have at least two games left against each of the other top-five teams in the East, giving them the power to climb the standings or tumble into tougher matchups down the road. 

Finding the proper amount of emotion in a meeting with the Nets might not be as important as the basketball fundamentals and execution. But the top-end talent is close enough for these teams that the intangibles could play a decisive role should they meet in the postseason. Embiid had an uncharacteristically poor game for the Sixers on Wednesday, struggling to knock down shots while getting trapped in the personal vendetta zone.

And while some of these guys might think they're fooling you, we all know who to turn to for a refreshing dose of honesty. Tyrese Maxey, a smiling truth teller in a sea of surly vets, is a little less hopeful than his coach is about emotions dying down over time.

"It's going to be like this every single time we play," Maxey said Wednesday. "I think we all know that in this room. But that's what you love...and that's what the fans want to see."

It creates compelling theater even when it falls short of high-level basketball. The Sixers would settle for just the latter, and the rest of us are greedy enough to hope for both.

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