As season nears end, Nets still expect Ben Simmons (knee/back) to return from injury

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As the Nets approach the final 10 games of their regular season, head coach Jacque Vaughn believes embattled star forward Ben Simmons will make a return from the combination of back and left knee soreness that has left him sidelined since the Feb. 19 NBA All-Star break.

Vaughn said for the fifth time since Simmons both had fluid drained from his left knee and received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection over the break that he has had “zero conversation” about shutting the former All-Star forward down for the remainder of the regular season.

Asked if he’s operating under the belief that Simmons will play again this season, Vaughn said: “Definitely operating under that belief. … There’s been zero conversation about him not playing. We’re expecting him to be back. We’re waiting for him to be back.”

Simmons missed five straight games from Jan. 28 through Feb. 6 due to left knee soreness. He returned to the rotation and played five straight games entering the All-Star break and has not played since the nine-day layoff.

Vaughn said Simmons reported soreness in both his back and his left knee but said on Thursday he has had no setbacks during his rehab and that he has progressed to “doing some work on-court.”

Vaughn declined to provide details about the nature of Simmons’ practice work.

“I’m just gonna say on-court so that we have no interpretation of how many people were on the court, how many balls were on the court, how many defenders,” he said.

He also declined to provide an injury timeline.

“The ultimate goal was that we don’t have a reoccurrence [of soreness in his lower back and left knee],” Vaughn said. “We get feedback every time he’s on the floor, what the strengthening has done for both the back and the knee to see if we’re in a good place. So we’re just getting feedback from day-to-day to see how he responds, and there’s been no setbacks, which is good.”

Simmons is averaging 6.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists through 42 games for the Nets this season. Thursday night’s matchup against the Sacramento Kings marked the 28th game he has missed due to injury this season.

Vaughn said there’s nothing he can see from Simmons on the practice court that would determine whether or not the forward is able to play.

“We’re just trying to get to a place where he feels good being back on the court. That’s the ultimate goal is to get him in a place where he’s not having soreness or inflammation and he’s ready to hoop,” he said. “We want him back to hoop, he wants to back to hoop, and that is definitely the goal.”

The Nets entered Thursday night with a 5-6 record in games Simmons has missed since the All-Star break. They have a 24-18 record in games Simmons has played this season but are only 2-2 in games Simmons has played since the Feb. 9 NBA Trade Deadline.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Nets expected Simmons to make an injury return last season after he received an epidural to alleviate the pain associated with a herniated disk in his lower back. The Nets suggested Simmons was day-to-day throughout the playoffs. Ahead of the decisive Game 4 in the first round against the Celtics, the Nets ruled him out due to lower back pain.

Vaughn agrees his team must capitalize on a brutal four-game homestand if the Nets are going to secure their playoff standing.

After going 3-2 on a five-game road trip, the Nets hosted the Sacramento Kings on Thursday, then welcome the Denver Nuggets, followed by back to back games against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Each of those teams are projected second-round playoff teams at minimum. The Nets entered Thursday night one game behind the Knicks, who are fifth in the Eastern Conference and two games ahead of the seventh-seeded Miami Heat.

“It’s important in a number of ways. First of all, just because of where we are in the season and trying to take advantage of every single opportunity. Each game as you see, every night that you watch games, they’re all important for some reason or another,” Vaughn said. “I think what I’m looking for is we, on the road, played some really good quarters, we played some great halves also, so can we put four quarters together? That’s what I’m looking for because if you don’t this week, you’ll definitely pay for it. That’s definitely what I’m looking forward to.”