Ben Simmons, Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, Damian Lillard back among happy returns


Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons plays in the preseason NBA basketball game against the 76ers in New York. AP

New York: Ben Simmons streaked behind the defense and caught a pass in transition that he dunked. About a minute later, he fired a crosscourt pass to a Brooklyn Nets teammate for a 3-pointer.

These were the types of plays the Philadelphia 76ers have seen many times before.

On Monday, Simmons finally made them for another team.

Simmons played against his former club in his NBA game since June 2021, making him among a number of big names who have returned to basketball action.

“I’m grateful to just be able to step on that floor, step on an NBA floor again,” Simmons said. “So I had a lot of fun out there.”

Kawhi Leonard also returned for the Los Angeles Clippers, as did Jamal Murray for the Denver Nuggets, after both sat out last season recovering from surgeries for ACL tears.

“539 days later… ABOUT THE TIME!!” Murray wrote on Twitter.

That’s no doubt how their teams felt after they expected to be title contenders last season but instead had those hopes dashed by injuries. Paul George also missed significant time for the Clippers, and Michael Porter Jr. was out for all nine games for the Nuggets.

They all played Monday, with Damian Lillard returning to Portland afterward the final 47 games last season, when the Clippers and Trail Blazers met in a preseason game.

“As a fan of the game, Kawhi being back is great for basketball, and Jamal Murray being back is great for basketball,” Nets’ Kevin Durant said. “All the guys that were injured and were able to play again, it’s a great feeling to see them right there.”

Simmons hoped he was close to playing last February after being traded to the Nets in a deal brokered by James Harden. Simmons cited mental health reasons for seeking a trade with the 76ers after a disappointing postseason when he received much of the criticism after the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference was ousted by Atlanta in the second round.

But a herniated disc kept him from making a late-season debut and forced him to have offseason surgery.

Simmons was now in the starting lineup and finished with six points, five assists and four rebounds in 19 minutes. He went poorly out of Philadelphia, with the last memory of the 2016 no. 1 pick’s time there, which passed a pileup from the Game 7 loss to the Falcons. But he looked confident when pushing the ball off the post in transition or on plays — even though he missed his only two free throws.

Simmons said he thought he would feel nervous, but he didn’t. Durant recalls being anxious when he returned after missing the 2019-20 season following Achilles tendon surgery.

“You wonder how your lungs are going to feel playing in an organized game because playing pickup is different than playing in a game,” Durant said. “So you just want to see where your legs are on the jump shot. So if you go away for a year, you get a lot of anxiety coming back. I know I have.”

Leonard last played just days before Simmons in the 2021 Western Conference semifinals. Murray’s absence was even longer, as he tore his ACL in April 2021, preventing him from trying to duplicate the brilliant postseason he had while leading the Nuggets to the 2020 West Finals at Walt Disney . .

“Those long-term injuries are tough, dark,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “These guys don’t have long windows to play basketball, they can’t play until they’re 50. It is difficult and requires a lot of dedication and work. The progress, especially early on, is almost invisible. You are non-weight bearing for a large amount of time with those types of injuries. Definitely happy for him and wish him well, in terms of staying healthy. He is a very good player and their team will benefit from having him back.”

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