Cam Thomas’ 40 points lead wounded Nets to win in Ben Simmons’ return to Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA — You knew it was coming. Wells Fargo Center was waiting for it. And when Ben Simmons checked in with seven minutes left in the first quarter Saturday night, the crowd let him have it, as expected.

Simmons was booed each time he touched the ball throughout the evening. But this was not his first time back in Philadelphia, playing against the franchise that selected him No. 1 overall in 2016 out of LSU.

The three-time All-Star countered the boos with a confident smile. And similar to his return game on Monday night, he made his presence felt instantly. Simmons’ first touch of the game resulted in an assist for him and a 3-pointer for Royce O’Neale, which sparked a 10-0 run that spawned the second he stepped on the court.

“This is, what, my second, third time back?,” Simmons said. “So it’s different now. It’s funny to me. I got grown men pissed off and yelling, you know?… I enjoy that. It’s not that deep in sports, but it comes with it, so I enjoy it.”

Off and running with Simmons — though on a strict minutes restriction — running the show, the shorthanded Nets made quick work of the shorthanded 76ers in a comfortable 136-121 win. Brooklyn enjoyed its largest halftime lead on the road this season (16 points) and also matched its highest-scoring first half on the road this season (69 points).

It was Brooklyn’s first triumph over Philadelphia since March 10, 2022.

“I think our first group started off really well and then Ben entered the game and there was another level of pace for our group and really sharing the basketball,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said.

Simmons, in his second NBA appearance since Nov. 6, finished with nine rebounds, five assists and was plus-7 in 14 minutes. He did not attempt a shot. While the Nets were outscored 29-15 in transition, they had 35 assists as a team.

Similar to Monday, Brooklyn showcased a balanced offensive attack against Philadelphia. Five players finished as double-figure scorers, led by Cam Thomas, who poured in 40 points 14-for-26 shooting. Lonnie Walker IV, continuing his post-injury resurgence, chipped in 20 points off the bench. The Nets shot 51.6% as a team and made 20 3-pointers.

Thomas, in the midst of arguably the best offensive stretch of his career, dropped 21 points in the third quarter. He joined Vince Carter as the only Nets players in franchise history to log multiple 40-point games against Philadelphia.

“I had a rhythm going to start the third and we kept riding the hot hand,” Thomas said.

This was one of those games the Nets (20-28) had to have. They had an eight-man rotation on Saturday until Vaughn cleared his bench late, playing without Dennis Smith Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Day’Ron Sharpe. But at least Simmons and all five of Brooklyn’s starters were healthy.

The No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference was completely gutted by injuries, playing without four starters in De’Anthony Melton, Nic Batum, Tobias Harris and most notably, reigning league MVP Joel Embiid, who was recently diagnosed with a displaced meniscus flap.

That is a tough hill to climb for any team. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia’s lone active starter, led the team with 23 points, three rebounds and five assists, and did his best to make up for his team’s lack of firepower. But this was a game controlled by Brooklyn, essentially from start to finish.

Philadelphia won the paint battle, 62-46, despite not having Embiid on the court. But the Nets dominated the glass, 53-44. Nic Claxton collected 13 of his game-high 15 rebounds in the first half. He also finished with 12 points and tied a season-high with four blocks, securing his fourth double-double in his last five games.

“We need Nic to play like that every night,” Thomas said.

The Nets will welcome the Golden State Warriors to Barclays Center on Monday. The last meeting between the two teams resulted in a 124-120 win for Golden State in San Francisco.

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