The Sixers (1-0) hosted the Brooklyn Nets (0-1) in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. Brooklyn wanted to steal homecourt advantage with a win on the road. Tyrese Maxey scored 33 points to power the Sixers to a 96-84 victory in Game 2.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
- The Nets were without the services of Ben Simmons, who will miss the playoffs with a nerve impingement in his back.
- Jacque Vaughn started Spencer Dinwiddie, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Nic Claxton.
- Everyone was available for the Sixers.
- Doc Rivers started James Harden, Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
You could see there was a different level of intensity from Embiid from the get-go. Most of it came on the defensive end, but he played a much more physical brand of basketball on both sides in the first half. He irked and bullied Claxton and smaller Nets for positioning in his preferred spots or lower, baiting them into off-ball fouls inside. On the defensive side of the court, Embiid was an absolute monster. Let’s start with the rebounding. He amassed eight defensive boards in the first quarter, nearly doubling his rebounding total from Game 1. He finished the first half with 15 rebounds, tripling his total from Game 1.
Of course, that’s not as complicated as it sounds when the two teams combine to shoot worse than 41 percent from the field before intermission. Defensive rebounding as a measure of effort on that end of the floor can be misleading. Look at Embiid’s running mate as a poster child for that. Harden has never been the exemplar of defensive motor, and that’s being charitable. Yet, he’s not far removed from averaging upwards of eight rebounds per game. But, a great measure of defensive intensity was everything else Embiid did.
He made timely rotations to the basket, deterring attempts at the rim or getting his hand on the ball for rejections. He had Claxton in hell, standing him up like a brick wall when he caught the ball in the paint. Perhaps the best indicator of where Embiid’s head was was him busting it down the court in transition to stop Johnson dead in his tracks, preventing a layup, when the Nets wing had the leak-out.
All of the garbage from the second quarter went, well, in the garbage can in the third quarter. Rivers called a timeout just one minute into the second half, the Sixers collecting a zero on their first possession and conceding an easy layup to Dinwiddie on the Nets’ first touch. After that timeout, the Sixers came out in their varsity uniforms. The rapid ascension into adulthood wasn’t the only difference. They donned a slight tweak on the offensive end.
Harris was stationed in the dunker’s spot, while Tucker was in the corners. It was a two-play sequence that woke the Sixers up from their first-half slumber. Maxey missed a corner three, but Tucker corralled a seemingly impossible offensive rebound and found Maxey for a second chance from the same spot. Seconds later, Harris cheated a passing lane and intercepted the ball in the open floor to get an uncontested dunk. The lead the Nets had built in the second quarter had all but evaporated. And just like that, everything changed for Philadelphia.
They got Brooklyn moving on defense, swinging the rock around the court. And when the ball found Tucker open and the Nets scrambled his way, he rifled the ball into Harris for a couple open dunks on the look-in. The gut-punch took place right in front of the Brooklyn bench. Harris looked to the now-empty side of the floor with the Nets converging on him under the basket, spitting the ball out to Maxey for a triple. Embiid did the same for Harris and others. A 13-point swing before the Nets knew what hit them.
As has always been the case, the Sixers needed Embiid to do most of the work himself or help attract the attention so that his teammates could finish possessions. And that’s without even considering the cracks he has to fill for said teammates in addition to being a rim-protector on defense. Whereas in the first half Embiid was too forceful with his decision-making against double-teams, he was patient against the extra pressure in the second half. When Brooklyn sent multiple defenders his way, Embiid spit the ball around the floor, creating open triples for teammates. It wasn’t a good night of shooting for either team, but you had to like Philadelphia’s math in the second half. They knew enough threes would fall if they kept giving themselves open looks, and so they kept the ball moving.
Maxey led the attack from beyond the arc, cashing in on four of the Sixers’ seven makes from deep in the second half. It was his 18 points in the second half that stapled a Game 2 victory for Philadelphia. That’s what the Sixers need from him — at least one game every round, just one massive half to stabilize the offense when not much else is working. He’s done it in each series he’s been in since stepping into a starting role at the beginning of last season. His defense will likely always be suspect due to his size, and time will tell if he’ll ever be capable of running an offense as a playmaker. But, Maxey has never cowered from the moment when his teammates look his way on the game’s brightest stage. His latest response to the spotlight has the Sixers sitting pretty through the first two games of this series.
Embiid hasn’t dominated as a scorer by any means through the first two games of this matchup. He’s trusted his teammates to pick up the slack on offense, setting them up by attracting attention and pitching in organically with his own scores when the opportunities present themselves. The defensive side of the court is where he’s really made his imprint, and it extended beyond the first-half excellence on Monday. Coming out of nowhere to block shots, clean contests inside and out. Embiid might not’ve had a strong share of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, but there are few players in the NBA that make as loud an impact on defense as Embiid does.
Vaughn mentioned that he wanted Brooklyn to take 40 threes and be more aggressive on the offensive glass. The Nets accomplished one of those goals, meeting that three-point volume. He expressed frustration with officiating after Game 1. The whistles leaned pretty clearly towards Brooklyn in Game 2. Philadelphia shot the ball rather poorly, too. The Nets have largely played the ball out of Embiid’s hands in this series, and the Sixers have found other ways to win.
Brooklyn executed half of Vaughn’s objectives and had some good opponent shooting luck, and still lost by 12. The Nets are on the ropes, and Embiid hasn’t even had his say as a scorer yet. They have to find two more wins, but the Sixers have to feel very good right now. They’ve taken care of business rather handily, and the paths to victory have contrasted entirely. As has been the case all season, the Sixers proved that they can win in a variety of ways.
Besides the mostly-cold shooting, the one sore spot in this game was the second quarter. Philadelphia’s offense stagnated to a grinding halt. The ball stuck far too much, Philadelphia reducing its offense to one pass and an isolation against a perceived mismatch. Whether halfcourt offense or open-floor play, the Sixers kept tripping over themselves, coughing the ball up over and over again. Harden and Embiid might as well have had butter on their hands. The most basic moves resulted in live-ball turnovers.
Embiid’s decision-making left much to be desired. The big man was too forceful against traffic, putting the ball on the deck against pressure and losing his grip. Harden played to the whistle, losing the ball as he attacked the basket because he tried to sell the foul. Even when he attacked in space, he couldn’t protect the ball. Harden either basically handed the ball to the Nets, or they junked up his dribble and took it from him.
Particularly mind-boggling was that Embiid and Harden looked as if they had never heard of the pick-and-roll. They didn’t even so much as attempt to get to the two-man game that they rode to elite offense all season. The Sixers lost the possession battle handily in the first half, turning the ball over eight more times than the Nets did. It turns out the one-pass-and-watch offense doesn’t work.
Speaking of Harden, no running from this stinker. As great as his shotmaking was in Game 1, he was dreadful in Game 2. He offered little more than a cardboard cutout on defense, Brooklyn blowing by him every chance they got. He was perhaps even worse on offense. Harden blew by Claxton on a switch for a layup early in the game. Beyond that, he had basically nothing going.
His troughs compound to become canyons. When Harden doesn’t have the touch as a scorer, his nights become hideous quickly. But, the damage isn’t always limited to missed shots. The turnovers often add to the virus. When he’s got both those elements rearing their ugly heads, you almost wonder if someone else would help the team more on those nights.
It’s a conundrum, really. At his best, Harden is something of a puppeteer. He controls the offense, putting everything in order for the Sixers. As if his playmaking isn’t a gut-punch, he’ll demoralize you with absurd shotmaking on the perimeter. But, man, his lows are low. He’s a high-variance star whose good moments are more frequent than his bad ones. But, you’re always wondering when he’ll have a night like he had on Monday.
The Sixers (2-0) will visit the Brooklyn Nets (0-2) in Game 3 of this series on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.
I provide daily coverage of the Philadelphia 76ers for The Painted Lines / Edge of Philly Sports. As a reporter, I work every day to foster relationships with those around the NBA, shape my analysis of what I see in games, and keep tabs on what’s to come around the league. I also host a Sixers-centric podcast called The Feed To Embiid. Follow me on Twitter, @NBAKrell.