Ben Simmons wastes little time making his presence felt in Nets’ blowout win over Jazz

All eyes were zeroed in on the Nets‘ bench in the early minutes of Monday’s matchup against the Utah Jazz at Barclays Center, intently watching for any signs of movement from No. 10.

Then with 6:27 left in the first quarter, with Brooklyn clinging to a 16-14 lead, Ben Simmons slowly made his way out of the tunnel and onto the court, sporting bright red sneakers that complemented the team’s colorful city edition uniforms well. He dished out a pair of high-fives to Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson before settling in for his first defensive possession in nearly three months.

The crowd of 16,054 at Barclays Center made sure to give the 27-year-old a warm welcome back after he spent 38 games on the inactive list because of a pinched nerve in his lower back.

“People don’t see the work that goes on behind the scenes,” Simmons said. “It took a lot of effort and patience and time to get back to where I’m at now. Every morning, every day, I’m working to get back on the floor. That’s not online. You don’t see that. So for me and everyone that has seen that, seen my discipline over the last two months, it’s great to see it pay off.”

Simmons was spotted inside the tunnel closest to the home bench often during his stints off the court. He was not there for any type of medical treatment. He just refused to sit down.

“I was ready to go,” Simmons said. “I’m not used to coming off the bench like that. So for me, I’m a little ancy. I want to get in the game.”

Head coach Jacque Vaughn told reporters before the game that Simmons would be on a minutes restriction in his initial handful of games back. A cautious approach to Simmons’ reintegration was expected from the Nets’ performance staff given how much time he missed. And the three-time All-Star wasted little time making his presence felt on offense.

It took just 46 seconds for Simmons to record his first pair of assists, both resulting in 3-pointers for Royce O’Neale and Cam Thomas. He would dish out four more dimes to end his initial five-minute stint on the court with six, including a sweet no-look pass to a cutting O’Neale under the rim for an easy deuce, becoming the first Nets player to register six assists in a first quarter off the bench since quarter stats were first tracked in 1996-97.

“I told them as soon as we checked in. Like, they know what time it is,” Simmons said. “I think certain guys know what it’s like to play with me and where their shot’s going to come from. So for us, it’s easy. It’s just about sharing the ball and playing the right way.”

Brooklyn outscored Utah 20-7 with Simmons on the court in the first quarter ending the period with 43 points, the most they have scored in any first quarter this season. And each time he checked in afterward, Jacque Vaughn’s team experienced similar, aggressive shifts in momentum. It went into the locker room at halftime with 20 assists on 26 field goals, the most assists it has had in any half this season.

Simmons took a seat for the final time on Monday night with 3:27 left in the fourth quarter, finishing with 10 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists in just 19 minutes in Brooklyn’s 147-114 win, two shy of his 37th career triple-double. He was plus-27, tied with O’Neale for second on the team behind Bridges, who was plus-33. He provided the shot creation and versatility the Nets have desperately missed and made it look effortless.

Reinforcements have finally arrived in what has been a difficult season to this point.

“Shoutout to Ben 10,” Lonnie Walker IV said. “From the beginning of the game I think he was just locked in. He really brought that energy for us, really changed the game as far as pushing the rock in transition. When you have a whole bunch of shooters around who are ready to shoot, running with him becomes a really dangerous game.”

Said Simmons, “Yeah, it’s always a fast break when I have the ball.”

The Nets handed out a season-high 41 assists as a team on Monday, their ninth game with at least 30 assists this season. Simmons played in four of those games. They also shot 51.4% from the field and knocked down 21 treys. Eight players finished in double figures, led by Bridges and Thomas, who scored 33 and 25 points, respectively.

Rookie guard Keyonte George had a team-high 21 points for Utah, which finished with 17 turnovers.

“I think overall the spirit of the group was really impressive tonight,” Vaughn said. “The bench cheering for each other, there was an energy that was out there and give our guys an extreme amount of credit for having that tonight.”

Simmons was not necessarily looking to score against Utah. He was the recipient of some easy shots around the basket and stole a pass late in the third quarter that resulted in a breakaway dunk. He went 5-of-5 from the field in his first game back. But scoring has not been Simmons’ focus for years now.

Few in the NBA can impact a game in ways other than scoring like he can. Monday’s game offered another subtle reminder of that.

“You see how other people played so well tonight because of the impact of Ben Simmons. It’s that simple,” Vaughn said. “The looks we got tonight, the amount of 3s we got tonight, the fast break points we got tonight, the uncontested looks we got tonight, the pace that we played with… So we did it at both ends of the floor and Ben deserves an extreme amount of credit with the way he played.”