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Sixers, Nets ready for 1st matchup since blockbuster trade

The stage is set for a must-see Eastern Conference clash in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

James Harden is set to face off against Brooklyn for the first time since last month’s trade.

Ben Simmons will be on the bench, boos raining down from all corners of his old home.

James Harden and Kyrie Irving will go head-to-head on the court, their explosive partnership having flamed out in just 13 months.

A month after Harden and Simmons were swapped in a blockbuster NBA trade, Brooklyn visits Philadelphia on Thursday (7:30 ET, TNT) in what’s more than just perhaps the most-hyped game of the stretch run.

This one is personal.

“It’s going to be loud,” Nets All-Star Kevin Durant said. “I’m sure Philly fans and people watching the game and media think this is somewhat of a budding rivalry. So I imagine it’s going to feel that way.”

When these teams were last on the court together, Durant and Joel Embiid received taunting technical fouls in the final moments before Embiid waved the Nets off their home floor after the 76ers’ Dec. 30 victory.

Things could be even testier now.

Trade deadline day was breakup day in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, with Simmons and Harden getting their wishes to part ways with their teams when they were exchanged in a Feb. 10 deal. Simmons said the 76ers were aware of his desire to leave well before the end of last season. It’s unclear exactly when Harden soured on the Nets after only joining them in January 2021.

Nevertheless, Durant and Irving say they don’t hold it against him — though it was only hours later that Durant refused to pick Harden during the All-Star draft, leaving him to LeBron James with the last pick.

Durant said he understands if Harden, seeing Durant sidelined with a knee injury and Irving ineligible to play in home games because he isn’t vaccinated against the coronavirus, decided he needed to go elsewhere to chase his first championship. Irving said he respects Harden’s decision.

“Like, we have a great friendship but it didn’t work out,” Irving said. “I wish things could have been communicated better for all of us as men. But hey, like, no hard feelings for me or anyone else.”

Everyone has to take Irving at his word, though it’s hard to imagine there isn’t just a tinge of resentment.

Harden has been terrific so far with the 76ers. Simmons still isn’t playing, bothered by a sore back when he tried to build up his conditioning. But he plans to be with his teammates on the bench in Philadelphia, where some of the toughest fans in sports can let loose on the player the Sixers took with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft.

Along with Embiid, he led the Sixers out of their losing era to the best record in the Eastern Conference last season. It was a good run, one coach Doc Rivers said would justify a tribute video if the Sixers opt to give Simmons one.

“Ben did a lot of good things here,” Rivers said. “It didn’t end well, right, just like marriages and all kinds of other things don’t end well, right? But Ben did a lot of good things here.”

Those good times are unlikely to be remembered Thursday.

NBA on TNT previews Thursday's matchup in Philadelphia.

The memory for Philly fans is likely to be Simmons’ poor and impassive play in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series against Atlanta, when he passed up a late layup that helped swing the game the Hawks’ way, followed by his refusal to suit up for them ever again while citing mental health challenges.

It might be easier to jeer Simmons if he were playing, as he said he hoped to do after first arriving in Brooklyn. But Philadelphia fans — who once booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus at a football game — can probably make Thursday’s situation work.

“Our fans are so silent, so I can’t imagine anything happening,” Rivers deadpanned.

With Embiid playing at an MVP level and Harden providing an immediate boost, the Sixers are second in the East. The Nets are eighth and appear headed for the play-in, though showed how dangerous they can be when Irving scored 50 points on just 19 shots in a victory at Charlotte on Tuesday.

The atmosphere could be reminiscent of the angry crowds that welcomed James back to Cleveland after his first departure for Miami, or Durant back to Oklahoma City after he left for Golden State in 2016.

“It was a different situation because I got to play and shut the people up every time I hit a jump shot,” Durant said. “But Ben doesn’t have their opportunity right now. He’s got to just sit there and just take a bunch of people just being childish and throwing insults his way because he didn’t want to play basketball for them no more.”

But Durant said he wouldn’t offer any advice to Simmons, saying he’d have to experience it for himself and might even find some of it amusing.

“I mean, the guy’s making $40 million a year,” Durant said. “You could take that for 48, for a couple hours, and I’m sure Ben has that approach.”