Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson said before this game that he was expecting a “haymaker” from the Sixers, a team he believed was “too good and too well-coached” to fall apart after one playoff loss.
If the Sixers took a left hook on Saturday afternoon, they came back with a massive overhand right on Monday night, throwing that haymaker in the form of a 21-2 run to open the second half, leading to an outrageous 51-point third quarter and 22-point win. They pulled level with the Nets at one game apiece as the series shifts to Brooklyn, which contains more hipsters per capita than Kensington and East Passyunk combined. Philly is back in this thing with 48 hours of rest before a short trip up the highway to the Barclays Center, and maybe the best part about the blowout is that Joel Embiid only had to play 21 minutes last night before taking a seat on the bench.
Now let me be honest with you –
I’m not big on fans leaving early during any win, especially when the playoffs begin. The crowd, which was excellent last night, starting filing out with more than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter as both teams pulled their starters and let the reserves do mop up duty.
The early exit encapsulated a bizarre scene overall, a quirky example of just how quickly this city went from tight-sphincter worrying to 100% blowout boredom, which is hilarious to me considering how itchy and negative everything was during the two full days that followed the game one loss. It’s goofy how big of a difference one good performance can make in the mental health department, how much it changes the tone on sports radio and social media, where knee-jerk reaction is king.
And what a performance we got. The energy and purpose was ten times what we saw on Saturday, just a sense of urgency that was not there in game one. The guys who had bad games had good games, Joel Embiid was able to rest in the fourth quarter, and Brett Brown made a couple of key lineup adjustments that really helped turned this thing around, so we’ll start there, after the jump:
- James Ennis, on a restriction, was available for 12 minutes last night.
- T.J. McConnell and Jonathon Simmons were dropped from the rotation.
- He had Jimmy Butler take over as the second unit ball handler, using a point-guard-by-committee approach and running out a group of Butler, Ennis, Boban Marjanovic, Tobias Harris, and Mike Scott.
- Jonah Bolden was used at power forward with the starters to open the second and fourth quarters. JJ Redick remained on the bench to begin those stretches.
I asked Brett about the decision to drop T.J. and go with a different look on the second unit:
First, it’s a difficult decision because T.J. has been a part of our bloodline for a while. The energy he injects is contagious and we all get. Even if you study the stat line from the game we lost, I he was a +12, which is pretty good. You start looking at the ripple effect of maybe what can others do from a spatial standpoint. James is able to stretch the floor a little bit more. You try to give Jimmy the ball as a legitimate point guard, a point guard when Ben was not on the court. That influenced that decision. I thought T.J. handled it as we all guessed he would. He’s a wonderful teammate, but it was driven for those reasons I just said.
Key words: “spatial standpoint.”
Ennis was a +14 in the time he was out there. Boban had numerous solid offensive possessions with this unit and did a nice job showing in the middle of the floor. Butler dished seven assists and Scott went 5-7 from the floor, improving on the 1-8 performance he put up in game one.
23 points and 10 rebounds in 20:55 of play.
He made a concerted effort to get into the paint and attack the rim, and there were at least three instances I counted where he passed on three-point attempts to look for better options. In one case, he instead turned into a staggered dribble hand-off, then there was a Euro-step that got him to the line on an and-1.
Thing is, these looked like very quick decisions from him. In the most recent Milwaukee game, for example, you could see he was in two different mindsets, like he was fighting the urge to want to shoot instead. There was no hesitation to move inside tonight, and he followed up a 0-5 three-point shooting effort in game one with zero three-point attempts in game two, shooting 8-12 from everywhere else on the floor.
Said Joel on that:
“I was just taking what the defense was giving me. If you’re going to give me that much space, I feel like I can do a lot of things with it. Tonight I just decided to be aggressive and drive the ball. Some nights I’m gonna shoot it, but tonight I was just trying to be aggressive.”
Sometimes he was aggressive and other times he was patient. I wrote about possessions like these in Monday’s column:
Joel has an open three there, but instead shows some patience, brings Redick around on a staggered hand off, and they eventually cycle the ball down to Ben Simmons in the post, who is able to get a bucket over Rodions Kurucs. Tough basket, sure, but that’s just a nice job by Joel to pass on the easy look, play Redick to the second side, and work the offense instead of settling for what Brooklyn wants him to do.
No Jared Dudley last night for Brooklyn, who did a nice job in game one of defending Ben and also getting back in transition to wall him off.
Ben was aggressive early and often in game two, getting to the rim and making smarter decisions with the ball (despite three turnovers, which he wasn’t happy with). Most importantly, he rode the crowd enthusiasm, took the game one boos in stride, and delivered the performance everyone knows he’s capable of putting in.
Said Ben on that:
I’ve got a lot of love for this city and the fans here. Every time I step on the floor I try and play as hard as I can. I was just showing that. The hustle I try and give each and every game is not only for my teammates, my family, it’s for the city.
Even better than his offensive line of 23/12/10 was the defense he played on D’Angelo Russell in the third quarter, blanketing him with pressure and making life incredibly uncomfortable. Russell had zero third quarter points and shot 4-10 on 35 offensive possessions against Simmons overall.
Even some small wrinkles helped with the spacing issue in attacking the rim, like this little backdoor low ball type of screen (if that’s even a thing) to remove a body in the paint:
Great play design by the Sixers here, using how Brooklyn is covering Simmons against them. Graham is all the way back to catch the drive. Butler screens Graham right in the middle of the paint as he's attacking downhill pic.twitter.com/q9YLYK3uaT
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) April 16, 2019
Ben was 8-12 from the floor and 2-4 from the foul line last night. His aggression on both sends really set the tempo and tone that the rest of his teammates mirrored.
17 points on 7-12 shooting and 2 for 5 from three. He only played 24 minutes due to that rotational tweak, but they found some solutions with him last night.
Brooklyn is “top-locking” Redick with Joe Harris, which means they’re just standing Harris between JJ and the ball handler, which prevents a screen but leaves the basket-side empty. To that end, the Sixers have a backdoor option available due to the overplay, and on a couple of occasions they were able to counter with actions like this:
That’s the remedy to a top lock, that simple backdoor slide into the corner. Simmons can even get a piece of Harris coming in the other direction, almost as if he’s flipping the screen like an off-ball player (which is what Brooklyn does in high areas with Jarrett Allen).
JJ also got his defensive game back on track. He’s obviously not fantastic on that end, but he kept himself out of foul trouble this time around as Harris only shot 1-2 on 34 matchups against him.
The five free-throws he earned at the start of the third quarter really helped get him going. He shot three after he was fouled on a three-pointer, then got two more on a run-out and clear path foul. After hitting five from the stripe, he went on to hit three shots in a row, including this wide-open three on a blown Brooklyn defensive assignment:
Huge Brooklyn mess there. You see J. Harris again with the Redick top lock, but the multiple blown assignments leave Tobias wide open to just step back to the arc and fire.
Hopefully a bit of confidence carries him into game three. He was 5-12 last night and a team-high +30.
Didn’t score and didn’t have to.
He’ll be happy with the 7 assists he dished out, second on the team behind Ben Simmons. Butler pointed out after his big game one performance that he felt like he could have gotten other guys more involved, and he did that Monday night, handling backup point guard duties and contributing in different ways.
- Boban Marjanovic is 8-10 from OUTSIDE the paint in this series. The Nets are giving him wide open looks that he’s knocking down. Boban shot a team-high 14 field goals last night, which is crazy, but he hit 8 of those shots to finish at 57% on the night.
- The Sixers ran their favored 12 pick and roll at the end of the first quarter and got a nice screen from Simmons on Dinwiddie, leading to a JJ three. They tried it again at the end of the third and it didn’t come off, leading to the Scott rebound and put back that got them to 51 points.
- Harris could be a better finisher at the rim. I feel like he’s had a couple of dunks stuffed in recent weeks.
- Embiid had a big block on LeVert at the basket towards the end of the 1st half. I thought he got all ball there but they might have whistled the body contact prior to that.
- Cheesesteak egg rolls at halftime resulted in the longest media food line I’ve ever seen. There had to be 50-60 people in the line, no joke.
- Ennis made a couple of tough plays, including a great hustle play on the offensive glass that resulted in a tip somehow finding its way into the basket. That was followed by a backdoor rebound and put-back. He was 2-2 last night with those two offensive boards and worked well I thought on the second unit, certainly a much-needed boost off the bench.
- The Sixers scored 12 fast break points last night after mustering just 4 in game one. Their season average is 15.
- Both of the flagrant fouls were the right call.
- JJ’s technical was whatever. The call leading to his complaint was incredibly iffy.
- Brett Brown chewed out the team at halftime. It worked.