The Philadelphia 76ers were back in first place by a half-game following a 113-95 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night, moving them just ahead of the Brooklyn Nets — who have controlled most of the headlines this season after adding James Harden to their already-imposing duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
On Wednesday night in Philadelphia, the Sixers host those very Nets with first-place in the Eastern Conference on the line, allowing for them to show they are a force to be reckoned with alongside Brooklyn.
For All-Star point guard Ben Simmons, though, his eyes are focused on the defending champs, not the East favorites.
“We’re going for the past champs, the Lakers, they were the ones that won the championship so you got to give the respect to them,” Simmons said. “Obviously, Brooklyn has a lot of talent, but at the end of the day, there’s only one ball, and you gotta play defense too. We got to come in prepared mentally and physically.”
While those Lakers are shorthanded without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Nets are returning to full strength, recently getting Durant back after missing nearly two months with a hamstring injury. Harden, who is also dealing with a hamstring issue, likely won’t take part in Wednesday’s festivities.
Simmons’ teammate, Joel Embiid, isn’t looking over the Nets as much as this could be the beginning of a fierce Eastern Conference rivalry for years to come.
“I think it’s more than a rivalry game because there’s a number one seed in play,” he said. “We got a tiebreaker, that we need. They’ve been playing well, we’ve been playing well, we’ve been winning games, they’ve been winning games. No one seemed to want to lose any game so you never know. We might have the same record at the end of the season so having that tiebreaker is important for us. We want the number one seed.”
The teams have met twice already this year, with the home team winning each contest for an even split.
Wednesday night bodes well for the 76ers given their home form at Wells Fargo Center. In 25 games in the friendly confines this season, they are 20-5.
That brings added importance to creating some space between the Sixers and the Nets with home-court advantage on the line. A full-strength Nets team will be one of the toughest teams in the league to get past in a seven-game series but guaranteeing that one extra home game would be vital to Philadelphia’s title hopes.
In typical head-coaching fashion, though, Doc Rivers isn’t ready to look that far ahead.
“I can tell you for me, I’m one game at a time guy,” said Rivers. “I literally close the book on Dallas when we get on the plane and start watching whoever that next opponent is. I don’t let myself get that far ahead, especially in a regular season, but it’ll be a big game. A fun game for both teams and we’ll see what happens.”