Ben Simmons' pain-free progress fuels hope he could return if Brooklyn Nets advance to Eastern Conference Round 1, sources say

The pain-free progress of Brooklyn Nets star Ben Simmons' back is fueling hope that the three-time All-Star could debut sometime in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, even if it's limited to a 10-15 minutes-per-game role, sources told ESPN on Sunday.

Simmons has been ruled out of the NBA's play-in tournament, and sources believe that Games 1 and 2 of an Eastern Conference playoff series would be too soon to expect Simmons to be ready to make his debut.

Simmons has been moving more freely on the court and advanced to shooting and 1-on-0 workouts after stops and starts since his trade to the Nets from the Philadelphia 76ers two months ago.

Simmons had an epidural shot in mid-March to subdue pain and irritation with a herniated disc in his lower back. He has found more traction in the past week, and, barring setbacks, there's an increasing confidence that he could become available to the Nets sometime in a first-round series, assuming the Nets advance out of the play-in tournament.

Brooklyn is hosting the Indiana Pacers on Sunday in the regular-season finale.