The Sixers Are Starting to Look Like a Goliath Again

Two days after his team pulled off the first stunner of the 2019 NBA playoffs, stealing home-court advantage away from the favored Philadelphia 76ers and inspiring no small amount of existential dread in the City of Brotherly Love, Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson braced for impact.

“We expect a haymaker,” Atkinson told reporters before Monday’s Game 2. “We know it’s coming. They’re too good. They’re too talented. They’re too well-coached. It’s coming, and [the question is] going to be, how do we react to it?”

Not great, as it turned out. The Sixers stomped their way back to self-respect on Monday, winning 145-123 to knot the best-of-seven series at one game apiece. Everything turned in a historically dominant third quarter, during which Philly’s talent advantage finally overwhelmed the sixth-seeded Nets. It was a 180-degree turn from Game 1—and it offered a glimpse of how devastating the Sixers can be when everything clicks.

Through two quarters, Brooklyn was holding up just fine. Despite a bounce-back performance from a committed and relentless Ben Simmons, and a 14-point first half from backup leviathan Boban Marjanovic, the Nets’ ball handlers again created clean looks out of the pick-and-roll against the Sixers defense. By doubling down on their “David strategy”—ratcheting up the variance against the favorite by bombing away from deep, going from 26 3-point attempts in Game 1 to 23 in just the first half of Game 2—the Nets entered intermission down only one. There was just one problem: In the third quarter, Goliath woke the fuck up.

The Sixers needed just three minutes and 54 seconds to rip off a 21-2 run, turning a nip-and-tuck affair into a laugher before you could say, “Huh, maybe Joel Embiid on one leg is still better than everyone in Brooklyn’s frontcourt.” The MVP candidate scored seven in a row to start the third off on the right foot. (Nets fans will argue Embiid was very fortunate to be able to do that after tattooing Nets center Jarrett Allen with an elbow with 35 seconds to go in the first half. Sixers fans would respond by demanding to know why Embiid didn’t shoot 45 free throws given how aggressively the Nets’ help defenders were drilling down on him in the post.) Then the heretofore invisible Tobias Harris got off the schneid with five straight free throws. Suddenly, the Nets could neither make a shot nor hold onto the ball, and before you knew it Philly was up 20. Meanwhile, Simmons—on his way to a statement-making triple-double (18 points on 8-for-12 shooting, 10 rebounds, 12 assists, and two steals)—entreated the Wells Fargo Center crowd to let him hear something other than the boos he bristled at on Saturday.

While Philly roared out of halftime, Brooklyn sputtered, shooting just 1-for-8 from the field with three turnovers in the first four minutes of the third quarter. Ramped-up defensive activity and physicality helped short-circuit the Nets’ rhythm. After getting beat to the lion’s share of loose balls in Game 1, Philly forced errant passes that allowed Simmons to get rolling in transition against a scrambled and retreating defense. (The Nets really missed veteran forward Jared Dudley, who played a big role in Brooklyn’s team defensive effort against Simmons and Embiid in Game 1, but who watched Game 2 in street clothes due to right calf tightness.) The open looks the Nets did create all rimmed out, allowing the Sixers to keep the pedal to the metal and build a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

By the time Mike Scott hit a short buzzer-beating jumper to ensure a full fourth quarter of garbage time, the Sixers had grabbed a couple of pieces of history. Their 51 third-quarter points—on scorching 18-for-25 shooting and a perfect 11-for-11 mark from the free throw line—tied an NBA record set by the 1961-62 Los Angeles Lakers for the highest-scoring frame in a playoff game. Their 145 points were the most in Sixers postseason history, the most any team has scored in a playoff game since 1992, and the most scored in regulation of a playoff game since 1990; if you felt like you were watching something rare, it’s because you were.

The most striking thing about it all was the balance. The Sixers have gone as Embiid goes; the strongest argument for his MVP candidacy is that Philly had the point differential of a 62-win team with him on the floor and just a 35-win outfit when he was off it. In Game 1, that followed; with Embiid hobbled and limited, Philly could neither secure stops nor consistently generate quality possessions, even with Jimmy Butler going off. On Monday, though, Philly’s much-ballyhooed starting five—the one that took two major midseason moves to build, defraying the Sixers’ depth in pursuit of something larger—shared both the ball and the burden. No starter took more than 12 shots, and none took fewer than 10. (In fact, Philly’s leading gunner on Monday? Marjanovic, who just kept stepping into the midrange jumpers Brooklyn gave him, and who just kept on making them, pouring in 16 points on 8-for-14 shooting in 18 minutes off the bench.)

Much has been made, especially after that disappointing Game 1, of the fact that Philly’s post-trade starting five shared the floor in just 10 games and for 161 minutes during the regular season. Something we’ve focused on a bit less of late: It was really freaking good in that limited run, outscoring opponents by 75 points, with a monster net rating of plus-17.6 points per 100 possessions. The Sixers reminded us of that on Monday.

When Simmons presses the action and makes plays off his penetration, Embiid mauls his defenders by driving at/through them rather than taking low-percentage top-of-the-key 3-pointers, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick find their strokes, and Butler fills in the gaps as a primary defender and complementary facilitator, Philly can go from desultory to dominant in a hurry. Coach Brett Brown made some solid adjustments to help keep his team in positions of strength, too—making Butler his de facto backup point guard to remove T.J. McConnell as a weak spot for Brooklyn to attack; reinserting a healthy James Ennis in place of Jonathon Simmons to remove another; helping activate Simmons by using him as a screener and dribble-handoff hub with Redick in the early going; etc. (Another nice wrinkle deployed by Philly on Monday, and especially Marjanovic and Butler: throwing in some random improvised screens on defenders retreating to clog up the paint, which helped clear the runway for Ben Simmons to get all the way to the cup.) When the more talented team cleans up its miscues and works its ass off, the underdog tends to be in trouble.

The Nets head home in good shape, having drawn first blood and put themselves in position to win the series without needing another W in Philadelphia. Even as they ran away on Monday, the Sixers still had some trouble keeping Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert from getting downhill in the pick-and-roll. The return of Dudley, whose shooting touch makes him a more credible floor spacer than Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in small-ball lineups, would also help. If the version of the Sixers that showed up in the third quarter on Monday sticks around, though, it might not matter. It took a little while, but we’ve now seen the vision that general manager Elton Brand had as he dealt his way to a top-heavy hand. It can be a little nerve-wracking at times, but it can be pretty breathtaking, too.

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