Nets’ focus should be on closing gap on 76ers

James Harden will be on one side. Ben Simmons will be on the other, likely with screaming 76ers fans in his ear.

Wells Fargo Center will be loud, and Jacque Vaughn acknowledged Wednesday’s game carries a bit of extra significance — but not because the Nets and 76ers have become hated rivals.

“More than anything it’s [because] Philly is a game … above us in the standings, and I think that makes it important,” the Nets head coach said at practice Tuesday. “You’re playing an Eastern Conference team, and you don’t know what the results are going to be at the end of the year. I think at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.”

The Nets enter play as the East’s fourth seed, half a game back of the Bucks and a full game behind the 76ers. Vaughn wanted the focus to be on the postseason outlook and not on Harden’s first game this season against the Nets, a team he forced his way off last season, or Simmons’ second game in Philadelphia, where he became Public Enemy No. 1 after he refused to report to the team.

Jacque Vaughn

There are all the ingredients for these two squads to loathe each other, including several past altercations between Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid. But Durant, who will miss at least two more weeks with a sprained MCL, disputes any notion of bad blood.

“Rivalries in the NBA are not really a thing, in my opinion,” said Durant, who will be focusing on his rehab rather than traveling to Philadelphia. “So it’s going to be a battle amongst each fan base on social media, but as far as the players, it’s another game on the schedule.”

The last time the Nets and 76ers met, on Nov. 22, Simmons was roundly booed at his former home but played well. The rest of the Nets did not and failed to knock off a 76ers team that was without several of its best players, including Harden, Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.

Vaughn called this matchup “totally different” than the last, and not just because the 76ers will be healthier.

“I think for us the mental space that we’re in as a group, entirely different,” Vaughn said.

If Embiid suits up, it would be the first time he plays against Simmons. The former star teammates could not make it work after Simmons played poorly in the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Hawks, after which Embiid publicly criticized Simmons’ often unwillingness to shoot.

Embiid, who missed the 76ers’ win in Sacramento on Saturday, is questionable with left foot soreness.

76ers shooting guard Furkan Korkmaz was ruled out with right shoulder soreness.

The last Nets player on the practice court Tuesday was Nic Claxton, who continued taking free throws after his teammates left. Claxton went 6 of 15 from the foul line in Sunday’s win over the Warriors, who repeatedly fouled him at one stretch of the game.