Maybe Philly fans were booing the wrong one

The night began being about Ben Simmons, but ended up being a referendum on James Harden.

If you feared the treading .500 Brooklyn Nets, this is what scares you.

If you had doubts about the Philadelphia 76ers, and thought they played a little too much into the bravado and emotion of the evening, it was laid bare in a 29-point thrashing.

And those warts were naked for the entire Eastern Conference to see, resulting in boos that were supposedly reserved for the inactive Simmons yet transferred easily to the lifeless, confused outfit that took the floor Thursday night.

Perhaps that’s why Simmons showed up to take the abuse from the angry fans, because he wanted to be around when the tide predictably turned — revenge without shooting.

The events of the last month or so seemed to paint Simmons as the malcontent against a victimized franchise. But zoom out to all parties and it’s very clear there aren’t any good guys here.

Simmons wasn’t the only culprit the last time the 76ers were on a stage this big. The coaching came into question and even Joel Embiid had eight turnovers in a Game 7 loss at home to go with 31 points and 11 rebounds.

The Brooklyn Nets' Andre Drummond, Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin, Nic Claxton and Kevin Durant watch from the bench at the end of their blowout victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on March 10, 2022. (Elsa/Getty Images)
The Brooklyn Nets' Andre Drummond, Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin, Nic Claxton and Kevin Durant watch from the bench at the end of their blowout victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on March 10, 2022. (Elsa/Getty Images)

So shades of gray, perhaps, but nobody’s clean and that’s why the last few weeks have felt a bit more icky, even in the one hand washing the other business of the current NBA.

The Nets took the evening in stride, drawing motivation in rallying around Simmons in a hostile environment. For what the Nets’ stars lack of continuity and on-floor familiarity, they can certainly bond in being public enemy No. 1 in several arenas.

Kyrie Irving in Boston, Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City and now, Simmons in Philadelphia. Simmons was the subject of scorn when still earning paychecks from the organization — at least now he can take comfort in being a visitor.

“It’s hard for you to chant at Ben Simmons when you’re losing by that much,” Durant said coolly, and tried to downplay the significance of the night.

“Did we win a championship tonight? No. Did we clinch a playoff spot? No,” he said, but later admitted wanting to send a message.

Message sent to Philadelphia and received by the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia played as if 16,000 fans would be on the floor with them. Instead of being in a lather, the 76ers relaxed or in the case with Harden, performed like the stage was too big for him.

Example infinity.

For 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s grand plan to bear June fruit, his stars have to perform like supernovas for the next three months.

Not just good players or pretty good players, but franchise players.

The roster has too many holes that can only be caulked by the greatness of superstars. Embiid was failed by Simmons’ lack of development and the Game 7 mental meltdown, but in exchange came a player who’s come up short more than any superstar talent this side of Karl Malone.

Harden caused a double fuss in the last 12 months, and if you squinted, you could make the case he was the sane one inside Brooklyn’s Arkham Asylum. It’s understandable to believe he might’ve craved stability that Irving was unwilling to provide as a teammate, and accountability Durant refused to enforce as the franchise’s biggest voice. Harden’s desire to exit could be rationalized, even as ugly as things got headed to the trade deadline.

It obscured, at least temporarily, the fact he cannot be depended upon for anything less than an ideal situation.

When things are going bad, he’s not the one to pull the nose up. He’s gone right in the tank, one time after another, when his team has needed leadership.

When he doesn’t have the ball, he’s useless. Unless he’s tossing a dime to Embiid on a screen-roll, he’s of no help to a top-three MVP candidate. And for most surrogates in similar positions, the No. 1 mission is to make life easier for the top guy.

Khris Middleton keeps the wolves away from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Pick-a-name, any name, to cut and play off Nikola Jokic.

Embiid has traditionally gotten the better of Andre Drummond, but Drummond kept Embiid at bay, forcing him to retreat to the perimeter after failing to get a rhythm in the first half.

And unfortunately for Harden, he ran into a New York, New York-sized boulder on Thursday — a team that knew his game and pitfalls all too well, luring him into a dark alley before leaving him rudderless, scary hours indeed.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MARCH 10: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers is surrounded by James Johnson #16 and Patty Mills #8 of the Brooklyn Nets in the first half at Wells Fargo Center on March 10, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
James Harden went 3 for 17 and scored just 11 points Thursday night vs. his former team. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Irving got in his chest and his other former teammates took liberties, holding Harden without a two-point basket. A regular-season game in March, for perspective, but it adds to the mound of evidence he’s yet to disprove about disappearing in big games.

“Whenever he locks in defensively, he can be very disruptive,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of Irving, no doubt aware of both combatants’ ability to be disruptive in all the wrong ways.

And even though the 76ers talk big about wanting the Nets to be a true rival — which can only be consummated by contentious playoff matchups — they look to be a franchise that wants no part of Brooklyn in a seven-game series.

The Nets are far from a polished product, and there’s no guarantee they emerge from the play-in tournament, considering Toronto has vaccine mandates Irving won’t be able to dance around even if New York lift its mandate toward private businesses any time soon.

But whenever Irving gets to dancing with the ball, he looks to be on a different plane than his defender. And Durant strikes fear any time he’s one of five Nets on the floor, reminding everybody he’s the baddest man on the planet as a healthy player — even if his leadership and possible enabling of Irving leaves much to be desired.

After being a secondary performer to Jayson Tatum’s career day on Sunday afternoon, Durant wasn’t going to be relegated yet again on national TV. He took the game with the appropriate focus, staring down Embiid during an early confrontation then laughing later on as an appropriate response to the lack of strategy and fight from the 76ers.

“It was a good environment to start, but it didn’t feel that way when we got off the court,” Durant said. “No matter who were playing tonight, we were locked in.”

If Durant hadn’t gotten hurt in January, and if Irving weren’t, you know, himself, it would be a different conversation surrounding these Nets.

Many moons ago, they were the betting favorites to hold the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. But reality has set in and chance made its way to Atlantic Avenue, biting them where it hurts.

It could very well be too late for the Nets to reach their potential, but they may drag some contenders out of the way with them before it’s done.

Because it sure looks like they exposed the 76ers and presented a blueprint others are sure to follow, making it likely the boos from the Philly faithful won’t be accompanying just one underachieving star, but another one.

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