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April 18, 2019

Anticipating adjustments heading into Game 3 of Sixers vs. Nets

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041719-KennyAtkinson-USAToday Bill Streicher/USAToday

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson looks on during the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers in game two of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.

In a single-elimination playoff format, you are doomed if you come out of the gate with the wrong gameplan. There's generally not enough time to bounce back from a poor starting point, which is why you see unlikely winners emerge in tournaments like the NFL playoffs or March Madness.

But in a seven-game format*, the adjustment is king, and talent tends to win out in the end. It was the Sixers who were forced to respond first after a bad Game 1 loss, and now the onus is on the Nets to respond as the series heads to Brooklyn for Game 3.

The challenge on Philadelphia's end is two-fold. First, they have to sustain their momentum from Game 2 and prove their 51-point third quarter was more than just a flash in the pan. Second, they have to counter what Brooklyn has in store for them next, without knowing for sure what that is.

But that uncertainty isn't an excuse to rest on your laurels. The Sixers are anticipating counters from the Nets, and while they will maintain the same overarching gameplan, they head to New York knowing changes are coming.

"I think you try to get ahead of the story and guess what might they do," Brett Brown said at practice on Wednesday. "I feel like we have answers, we've talked that through. I don't feel like there's much that's probably going to surprise Kenny [Atkinson], or Kenny surprise me, that this is really different or unique."

So what are the wrinkles I think the Sixers should be looking for? I'm glad you asked.

(*By the way, don't ask me why this seven-game phenomenon doesn't really apply to hockey. That sport makes no sense, though I guess that's what happens when you play a precision sport on a sheet of ice.)

Tinkering with the lineup

The most obvious switch for Brooklyn starts with the guys they put on the floor. You could easily make the case that two of their three best players come off of the bench, and getting them all on the floor together more is sort of an obvious move from the outside.

Through the first two games of the series, the three-man combination of D'Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert has played exactly zero minutes together for Brooklyn. That's not a huge surprise, because in the limited run (123 minutes) they got together in the regular season, that trio struggled to defend and didn't make up the difference on the other end.

There are definitely reasons you wouldn't want to roll out a three-guard lineup against the Sixers, predominantly because you'd be mismatched with size. But in theory, the Nets would be able to force the Sixers into defending repeated isolations, something they're not necessarily equipped to deal with. When Brooklyn has been able to force the mismatch they want, they've had success attacking the basket, with Dinwiddie, in particular, getting going by attacking the likes of JJ Redick and Mike Scott.

A more realistic switch might be bringing just one of LeVert or Dinwiddie into the starting lineup, allowing Atkinson to stagger his ballhandlers a little bit while beefing up the scoring for the starters. A defensive struggle doesn't favor the Nets anyway, because their centers are drawing dead against Embiid, so why not lean into a shootout series and hope you can outgun a Sixers team prone to three-point variance?

Rather than mess with the starters, though, the Nets might just be able to lean into a Game 1 wrinkle that screwed with the Sixers. Jared Dudley said at Nets practice on Wednesday that he would be available for Game 3, and you would assume the Nets will stick him back at small-ball center at some point on Thursday.

How the Sixers respond to this will be interesting. Brooklyn threw some curveballs with lineups and schemes on Monday, but their small-ball options featured non-shooters at center like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Boban Marjanovic got attacked by Brooklyn, but not to the extent he could have been with a guy like Dudley on the floor stretching him out.

The Sixers will have to do nothing fancy against that sort of lineup, but they do need to show the proper urgency to feed Boban or Embiid the ball and let them dominate inside.

Adjusting against Simmons

It should surprise no one if Simmons is at the center of Brooklyn's gameplan to level the playing field. When the Nets were able to neutralize him in Game 1, they won easily. When he ran roughshod in Game 2, the Sixers won by a landslide.

The book on Simmons offensively is what it is, but the Sixers countered Brooklyn nicely on Monday night. Rather than throwing up their hands and praying something good would happen, they turned the Nets' sagging against them, with Joel Embiid, Redick, and others setting hard screens on Simmons' defenders as he began drives toward the paint. With those players stationed near the free-throw line, their ability to react and recover gets neutralized.

Brooklyn may not be able to avoid that unless they want to bring their defenders further out. I don't suspect that's the case — they'd much rather try to bait Simmons or Embiid into taking jumpers, even if it doesn't work, than try to play him out to half-court, leaving themselves susceptible to being burnt by Simmons' athletic advantage.

Where they might want to look is on the other end of the floor, where they can turn Simmons' aggressiveness against him in the same way the Sixers turned the sagging against Brooklyn.

One of the keys for Philadelphia in Game 2 was Simmons hounding Russell with or without the ball, and the latter was especially effective at slowing Brooklyn's offense down and forcing them to work from late-clock situations in the third quarter. Simmons is bigger and quicker than Russell, which makes it hard to create separation from him when he's searching for the ball.

This is where the Nets might want to tie the above lineup tweaks into a schematic adjustment. If you get another ballhandling threat on the floor next to Russell, you can use Russell more as an off-guard and run him through gauntlets of screens in an effort to free him from Simmons. That's a situation the Sixers don't want Simmons to navigate through for too long — it's part of why he's not asked to check guards during the regular season — and Russell has experience bouncing back and forth between guard spots dating back to his amateur days.

But this would definitely be a break from the team's identity. Brooklyn's offense is not overly complicated — they want to run pick-and-roll with a spread floor, and you're more likely to see guys like Joe Harris and Rodions Kurucs occupying floor spots in the corners than you are to see them setting repeated screens away from the ball. You might see them try to rub an opponent every so often, but deliberate screening is often left to their big men and it's predominantly on-ball.

A case for stability

All that being said, the most likely outcome could be no changes at all. A reaction from Philly in Game 2 does not necessarily mean an equal reaction has to happen on Brooklyn's end.

Remember, this Brooklyn team was only down by a point at halftime of Game 2 despite the Sixers coming out with renewed energy on Monday. If not for one of the all-time great quarters in playoff history, maybe we're talking about a completely different series.

The Nets are the team that can play as if they have nothing to lose here. If Atkinson wants to go down swinging without changing their brand of basketball, there will be no real consequences in the offseason. They're still a young team on the rise with plenty of room to grow. The belief in their identity may be strong enough that they look at this series and think, "Hey, the Sixers are sloppy on defense, and our strengths may just win out vs. their weaknesses if we stay the course."

Adjustment or not, the Nets are a dangerous team that the Sixers now know for sure they have to take seriously. There are three games left to win for either team, and the chess match still has a bunch of moves left.


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