Ben Simmons took control in 76ers-Nets Game 3

Simmons scored 31 points as the 76ers won 131-115 and took a 2-1 series lead over Brooklyn.

Ben Simmons Philadelphia 76ers NBA
Ben Simmons broke out for 31 points in the 76ers' Game 3 win over the Brooklyn Nets Thursday. –The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Ben Simmons played the role of villain with gleeful ease. Every time the Philadelphia 76ers’ guard touched the ball in Thursday’s Game 3 in Brooklyn, hearty boos followed, with each jeer seemingly energizing him.

After the Brooklyn Nets’ Jared Dudley air-balled an open 3-pointer in the third quarter, Simmons celebrated with outstretched arms. After a dunk, he hung on the rim so long that the backboard swayed with aftershocks. When Dudley challenged a call, Simmons laughed in the veteran’s face.

In the end, Simmons scored 31 points as the 76ers won, 131-115, taking a lead of two games to one in the best-of-seven first-round NBA playoff series.

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With a smirk and plenty of cocksure drives to the basket, Simmons quieted the critics who questioned his shooting ability. He went 11-for-13 from the field and 9-of-11 from the free throw line, while chipping in nine assists.

“That was one of Ben’s most dominant games,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “I give Ben a tremendous amount of credit. We needed it all tonight, especially without Joel.”

In the absence of Joel Embiid, the team’s starting center who was ruled out about 15 minutes before the game because of knee tendinitis, the 76ers showed that they have plenty of other star power. Tobias Harris, who had struggled in the previous two games, finished with 29 points, and J.J. Redick had 26.

“We have the pieces to complete games,” Simmons said.

Philadelphia controlled the game, although the scrappy Nets fought back time and again until the final minutes. D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert tied for the team high with 26 points, but LeVert stood out to coach Kenny Atkinson. “He was our sole offensive force out there,” Atkinson said.

After winning Game 1, the Nets had dreams of a series upset, but after two thorough defeats, Brooklyn’s chances of advancing seem increasingly unlikely.

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The rivalry between the teams had heated up in Game 2, a 145-123 win for the Sixers, when Embiid violently delivered an elbow to the jaw of Nets center Jarrett Allen in the first half. In Monday’s postgame news conference, as Embiid tried to apologize, he and Simmons broke into laughter. LeVert called the moment “disrespectful.”

Before Game 3, Embiid admitted: “I probably should’ve been ejected. I saw the play, and that was a bad play.” The foul was ruled a Flagrant 1; a Flagrant 2 would have resulted in an ejection.

“I was trying to be genuine, and I was actually sorry about what I did, and I actually apologized to Jarrett during the game,” Embiid said. “I kept asking him if he was OK. That was not my intention. I don’t do that type of stuff.”

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He said he had laughed on the podium because of a comment from Simmons. “It kind of took a wrong turn. But I did apologize. I wasn’t laughing because of how sorry I was, which I am. I’m extremely sorry. That’s not what I meant to do, I was just trying to be aggressive.”

Dudley added some heat to things by calling Simmons “average” in half-court situations. Brooklyn fans took it to the next level, hanging a missing-person sign outside Barclays Center with a Simmons mug shot. It read: “Missing: Have you seen his jumper?” Along with Simmons’ height and weight, it listed his identifying characteristics as “just average.”

Brown acknowledged that while Simmons, the team’s second-year star and the NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year, tended to shine in transition, he often struggled in the half court.

“It’s evolving,” Brown said, pointing out that Simmons is just 22.

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The boos helped as well.

“He feeds off of that, but it’s not that he’s beating his chest,” Brown said. “I think he’s got tremendous inner confidence.”

After the game, Simmons took off the black hat and played nice. When asked about his rebuttal to the “average” remark, and about the boos, he shrugged. “I’m not going to worry about it,” he said.

As for the Dudley air-ball celebration? Simmons smiled at the question. “I don’t really have energy for all that,” he said. “It’s done.”