Kyrie Irving’s return from suspension was the story of the day. But it was the return of the old Ben Simmons that won the game.
Looking like his All-Star self for the first time since arriving in Brooklyn last season, Simmons led the Nets to a 127-115 victory over shorthanded Memphis before a sellout crowd of 18,241 at Barclays Center.
After struggling in the aftermath of offseason back surgery — and after not playing last season due to mental health issues and a herniated disk — Simmons teased glimpses the prior two games and put it all together Sunday in a show against the Grizzlies.
“Immediately you saw force that he played with, whether it was his pace and his attack of the rim and it was a relentless attack towards the rim and really just spraying the basketball,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “The pace that he created for us, it will make it hard for people to guard us.”
Simmons made it impossible for what was left of the Grizzlies to guard the Nets.
Kevin Durant had 26 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, and Irving — following an eight-game suspension without pay — had 14 points. But Simmons led the way with 22 points, eight boards, five assists and a game-high plus-19.
With starter Nic Claxton out for personal reasons, Simmons started at center and outplayed Steven Adams. And on offense he pushed the pace and created open looks for a Nets team that tied a season-high with 32 assists and shot 60.2 percent.
“Just building. It takes time. I’m trying to build my consistency and stay focused on what I can do. I know what I can do and what I’m capable of. I’m not surprised,” Simmons said.
“Just staying focused, taking it day by day. Honestly, that’s what it is. You got to take it day by day. For me myself, personally if I start reading everything that’s going on and get my head psyched out that’s not good for me. So I just want to stay focused, take it day by day … keep building on good days and stay locked-in.”
Simmons was locked in when he needed to be. With the Nets clinging to a 94-93 lead with 34.9 seconds left in the third, they reeled off a decisive 20-5 run against a Grizzlies team missing starters Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson.
“The message at halftime was definitely we can be better,” Vaughn said. “We went on a 20-5 run end of the third into the fourth, refocused and came away with the win.”
It was Simmons who pushed the ball and hit Yuta Watanabe (16 points) for a right-corner 3 and a 109-98 lead with 7:51 left. Durant found Watanabe for another 3, then had an alley-oop dunk to make it 114-98.
“[Simmons] made it easy,” Watanabe told The Post.
The rest was garbage time.
Dillon Brooks led Memphis with 31 points, while Adams had 15.
Next up is Tuesday in Philadelphia, where Simmons will play for the first time since being traded last year.
It’s great for him. It’s just like Portland where he had to step up and make free throws when they tried to foul, makes 3 of 4. It’s the same sort of mental and physical hurdle that he’s going to have to get through. Which is great,” Vaughn said. He’ll have his teammates behind him. He’ll have a coach that believes in him and overall we’re looking forward to going and playing.”
Simmons was injured for the Nets’ game at Philadelphia in March, but was still booed viciously during warm-ups. Asked if he thought enough time had passed where the 76ers fans wouldn’t boo, he laughed.
“In Philly? Come on now,” Simmons said. “I know what’s coming. It’s part of the game. Philly fans, one thing about them is that they are incredible. They’re diehard Philly, everything Philly, whatever it is. I respect that about the city: It’s a sports town. I was talking to Yuta before the game about what it’s like to play in Philly. It’s an incredible opportunity.”