BOSTON — Steve Nash pushed back on an ESPN report suggesting Ben Simmons targeted Game 4 against the Celtics to make his Nets debut.
“That’s news to me,” the Nets head coach said pregame Wednesday. “I don’t think we’re targeting any game. I think we’re trying to see how he develops, how he progresses, and this is something that since the recent history with the trade has not been straightforward.
“While it’s exciting to see him on the floor and to see him make progress, I don’t think any of us are saying (his return is) imminent,” Nash continued. “I think we’re gonna sit back and support him and see how far he gets, and if he’s able to play, that’d be great, but we haven’t penciled in anything, we haven’t made any conclusions yet. I think he’s got a long ways to go before he feels ready to play.”
Nash’s comments came shortly after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Simmons is anticipated to further accelerate his ramp-up in the coming days, making Game 4 at Barclays Center against the Celtics “a realistic target for his Nets debut.”
The comments also came after Nash said at shootaround that it will largely be Simmons’ call whether or not he plays in a game in the first round.
“There’s no other way than him to say, ‘I’m ready,’ especially after an absence this long,” Nash said at TD Garden. “So whenever he is ready, it’s gonna have to be on him to say, ‘I feel comfortable,’ ‘I feel ready to go,’ ‘I want to play,’ ‘I want to contribute.’ We can’t push him places when you have been out this long. It’s gotta be something where he’s definitely comfortable and ready to play.”
Nash added that it will be “a collective decision” including the team’s performance staff, but ultimately, Simmons will call his own shot.
“This has been a prolonged absence,” he said. “So I think it’s more about they (Simmons and the performance staff) are in this together trying to find a resolution, a time for him to come back where he is safe to play and well enough to contribute.”
Simmons has continued to make progress after receiving an epidural in mid-March to alleviate the pain associated with a herniated disk 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 injuring his back. As Nash spoke, Simmons walked past the small pool of reporters gathered for Nets’ shootaround availability onto the TD Garden court.
“Ben’s doing well,” Nash said. “He’s gonna work out again today, see if he continues to improve, so he’s still progressing and moving forward.”
Simmons participated in the four-on-four on Monday then a five-on-zero walkthrough on Tuesday that Nash defined as “scripting.” Nash said the scripting is important so that Simmons knows what actions the team is trying to run if he does make his debut, but hedged that thought process with the adjustments that come in playoff basketball.
“If he’s able to play at some point, having him kind of become as familiar as possible with what we’re doing, because things change from day-to-day,” he said. “You’re making adjustments, so having him be involved with all of that stuff, so if he is able to play at some point, he’s comfortable.”
Simmons’ sheer presence in practice and shootaround has caught the eye of some of his teammates.
“Yeah, he’s coming along pretty good,” Nic Claxton said at shootaround on Wednesday. “He definitely has a real good swagger about himself right now. So, you know, I think the whole world is ready to see him back out there and he can definitely help us out in a lot of ways.”
Some teammates, however, still remain in the dark.
“I haven’t seen much,” said Seth Curry, Simmons’ former teammate in Philadelphia. “I haven’t been following him around. [I’m] locked into what we’re doing. Whatever he’s doing, I haven’t really been in the gym to see it. I haven’t seen much.”
It remains unclear whether Simmons has progressed enough to play in Game 3 at Barclays Center on Saturday. Nash did not rule Simmons out for the Nets’ first home playoff game but also said the team might be cautious given how long the star forward has gone since playing an NBA game.
“I wouldn’t be able to say anything about that because I’m not even sure how he’s gonna get through these weeks,” he said after Tuesday’s practice at Harvard. “We have to also consider it’s a nine-month absence, or whatever it is, so it’s not just like he had a six-week absence. I think it’s a pretty unique scenario and it’s not as linear as the other in-season injuries.”
Simmons last played for the Philadelphia 76ers against the Atlanta Hawks in the Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on June 20. He cited mental health issues as his reason for not playing a game or fully participating in Sixers training camp this season before arriving in Brooklyn via the Feb. 10 James Harden deal.
Simmons did not play when he arrived in Brooklyn because he needed to ramp up his conditioning. He injured his back during that ramp-up.
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