BOSTON – If Ben Simmons goes into a playoff game this season, the decision will be his, not anyone else’s.
That’s the message Nets head coach Steve Nash gave Wednesday just hours before the tip for Game 2 against the Celtics, exactly 10 months after Simmons last played in an NBA game.
“There’s no other way than him to say, ‘I’m ready,’ especially after such a long absence,” Nash said at the TD Garden. “So when he’s ready it will have to be up to him to say ‘I’m comfortable’, ‘I feel ready to go’, ‘I want to play’, ‘I want to contribute .’ We can’t push him when you’ve been gone that long. It has to be something where he definitely feels comfortable and ready to play.”
Nash added that it will be “a collective decision” including the team’s performance staff, but in the end Simmons will take his own chance.
“This is an extended absence,” he said. “So I think it’s more about them” [Simmons and the performance staff] are together in this and trying to find a solution, a time for him to come back where he is safe to play and good enough to contribute.”
Simmons continued to make progress after receiving an epidural in mid-March to relieve the pain associated with a herniated disc in his lower back. This week, Nash said, the 25-year-old All-Star forward practiced in a four-on-four setting with contact for the first time since his back injury. As Nash spoke, Simmons walked past the small group of reporters gathered for Nets’ shootaround availability to the TD Garden track.
“Ben’s fine,” Nash said. “He’s going to train again today, see if he continues to improve, so he’s still making progress and moving forward.”
Simmons took part in the four-on-four on Monday and a five-to-zero walkthrough on Tuesday that Nash defined as “scripting.” Nash said the scripting is important so Simmons knows what actions the team is trying to take when he makes his debut, but he capped that thought process with the tweaks that come in playoff basketball.
“If at some point he’s able to play, he needs to get as familiar as possible with what we’re doing because things change from day to day,” he said. “You make adjustments, so you’ve got him involved in all those things, so if he can play at a certain point, he’s comfortable.”
Simmons’ sheer presence in training and shootaround has caught the attention of some of his teammates.
“Yeah, he’s doing pretty well,” Nic Claxton said during shootaround on Wednesday. “He definitely has a good swagger about himself right now. So, you know, I think the whole world is ready to see him out there again and he can definitely help us in a lot of ways.
However, some teammates are still groping in the dark.
“I haven’t seen much,” said Seth Curry, Simmons’ former teammate at Philadelphia. ‘I didn’t follow him. [I’m] locked up in what we do. Whatever he does, I haven’t really been to the gym to see it. I haven’t seen much.”
It remains unclear whether Simmons has made enough progress to play in Game 3 at Barclays Center on Saturday. Nash didn’t rule out Simmons from the Nets’ first home game, but also said the team could be cautious given the time the star has progressed since playing an NBA game.
“I couldn’t say anything about that because I’m not even sure how he’s going to get through these weeks,” he said Tuesday after training at Harvard. “We also have to remember that it’s a nine-month absence, or whatever it is, so it’s not like he was off for six weeks. I think it’s a pretty unique scenario and it’s not as linear as the other injuries during the season.”
Simmons last played for the Philadelphia 76ers against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on June 20. He cited mental health issues as the reason for not playing a game or fully participating in Sixers training camp this season before arriving in Brooklyn. through the Feb. 10 James Harden deal.
Simmons didn’t play when he arrived in Brooklyn because he needed to ramp up his fitness. He injured his back during that ramp-up.