April 15, 2023
The Sixers delivered a haymaker in Game 1 of their series against the Nets, overwhelming the underdogs from Brooklyn in a 121-101 victory.
Here's what I saw.
• Perhaps the only big question coming into this game/series was what James Harden would look and feel like. Based on his early finishing around the rim, or lack thereof, a bit of panic could have seeped into the fanbase. You can wash all of that away, though, with elite shotmaking, and Harden gave you plenty of that in a first-half fireworks display.
Toward the midpoint of the second quarter, Harden turned Game 1 into his own personal highlight reel. The first (and arguably the loudest) came with Harden on an island against Spencer Dinwiddie, with the Nets guard well underqualified to guard him. Harden made sure to highlight that fact, dropping him off with a wicked crossover before banging the stepback three in his face.
HARDEN PUT DINWIDDIE ON SKATES ⛸️— ESPN (@espn) April 15, 2023
📺 ESPN pic.twitter.com/y2rIMMwBCm
It only got more ridiculous from there. In the final minute of the first half, Harden pulled up from the logo in a two-for-one situation, sending the arena into hysterics as the game inched toward halftime. Mikal Bridges was on a heater of his own on the other end of the floor, but as a result of Harden's shotmaking, it never felt like the Sixers were letting the game slip from their grasp, with Bridges' hot night necessary just to keep pace with Harden and Co.
With Brooklyn hard-doubling Embiid and often using Harden's defender as the guy to pressure him, Philadelphia's lead guard had plenty of opportunities to hurt Brooklyn as a passer, and the one constant during his time in Philly has been Harden burying teams who give him space to exploit as a playmaker. Against a team with as much recovery speed as there is in the league, Harden spent the game picking the Nets apart.
If Harden had better luck finishing inside the arc, we might have been talking about a 30-point double-double to open the playoffs, and people would have started planning the parade route. As it was, an excellent start.
• There was not a lot of mystery to what Brooklyn would have to do in order to slow Joel Embiid down in this series. They don't have the personnel to win with single coverage, but switching and doubling constantly is a sensible formula.
Playing that style of defense leaves you exposed in a couple of ways — shooters are going to get clean looks if the doubled player makes quick reads, and you're susceptible to being pounded on the offensive glass. Both of those issues popped up for Brooklyn on Saturday, and Embiid's reads were a key storyline for the Sixers.
It is hard to overstate how badly the Nets wanted someone other than Embiid to beat them. They doubled off-ball, they doubled immediately on the catch at the elbow, and they invited him to try to beat them as a playmaker. And Embiid consistently made the right plays to attack that coverage, swinging the ball around the horn to create open threes for Philly either through direct assists or hockey assists.
There were definitely some moments where Embiid lost his composure and allowed the Nets to rush him, forcing him to play at their pace instead of his. That lead to a couple of ugly turnovers on off-target passes in the third quarter, putting some inspiring possessions on tape for the Nets to savor.
This was not an MVP-level performance from Embiid, but he received MVP-level attention, and that is the power of having him on the floor. He attacked
• P.J. Tucker's play was one of the major early positives for Philadelphia in a first quarter filled with missed shots. He has made a living out of doing the work no one else really wants to do, and for coming through in the big moments. Check off both of those boxes for Game 1, with Tucker's work serving as an equalizing force as the Sixers looked to find their shooting boots.
There have been a few high-profile games that featured awesome Tucker performances throughout the season, but I don't think we've seen Tucker have this much juice at any point this season. He flew around the floor in the opening quarter, pulling down three offensive rebounds all by himself. A couple of those rebounds came from within crowds, with Tucker just bulldozing through traffic in an effort to secure extra possessions.
Philadelphia needed those — they shot just 10/28 in the opening period, but that 28 number was nine more attempts than the Nets got thanks to second chances and turnovers. In a format where every possession matters, Tucker helped tilt the possession fight in his team's favor. And he never stopped coming until he was finally pulled from the game deep in the fourth quarter. Even as the Nets waived the white flag and pulled all their starters in garbage time, Tucker managed to play harder than the Brooklyn reserves who took the floor to see this thing out.
In other notable news: Tucker looked quicker on the trigger from downtown than he has for much of this season, hitting a tightly contested three in the first half to start his day off right. This version of Tucker is who they envisioned when they signed him last summer, and he arrived right on time.
• The Sixers were +2 in the Embiid-less minutes in the first half of their first playoff game. Hang the banner.
Reed's contributions to this game weren't frequent, but he may have come up with the single best highlight of the game early in the fourth quarter, somehow coming up with an offensive rebound into a disjointed dribble move into a step-through finish at the rim, drawing one of the loudest cheers the arena had to offer all night.
PAUL REED BETWEEN THE LEGS FOR MAJOR STYLE POINTS 😎 pic.twitter.com/I8riEWDkHE— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 15, 2023
Honestly, the aesthetics probably throw people off with Reed as much as anything. He has real utility and skill, but he looks so goofy doing it that you almost can't believe it's real.
• We have spent a lot of this season harping on poor effort and lack of focus for the Sixers, as their lapses in concentration have allowed teams to turn big leads into tight finishes. The Sixers came out ready to rip in their first playoff game of the year, meeting Brooklyn's competitive fire and often far surpassing them.
Brooklyn's path to winning in this series rests partly on their ability to make up for the talent gap with the little things – effort, physicality, taking care of the basketball, and so on. They were not better than the Sixers in any of those areas on Saturday.
• How much Mikal Bridges domination are you willing to concede in this series? That was one of the big questions prior to Game 1, and it appears the Sixers have settled on "a lot" as their answer. There is definitely a strategic element to letting him get his at the cost of anyone else getting time and touches on-ball, but the Sixers didn't find a happy medium in Saturday's playoff opener.
Bridges' 23 first-half points came on a nice mix of stuff from the Villanova product – off-ball movement, transition scoring, but especially switch-hunting, with the Sixers freely rotating through different defenders to stop Bridges from getting downhill after a ball screen. When they didn't switch, it was because they had Joel Embiid sitting back in drop, walling off Bridges from the rim and making it hard to throw lobs over the top to Nic Claxton.
As Sixers fans have seen throughout the Embiid era (and certainly under Brett Brown), that can lead to a lot of makes from midrange, and Bridges punished them there throughout the first half, going crazy with the Sixers allowing him to have that shot basically whenever he wanted. That part of the approach was mostly fine on paper, but you can't have that and have a lackadaisical approach to chasing him off-ball, which was the case at times on Saturday.
(Tobias Harris had some brutal defensive possessions there, allowing Bridges to get to the middle of the floor despite having positioning that should have made that impossible.)
It was all for nothing in the end, of course, and Philadelphia managed to slow Bridges down after halftime.
• Not giving Dorian Finney-Smith a flagrant on the foul where he smacked Embiid in the face on a contest was pretty bizarre. Definitely not an ejection-level foul, but a Flagrant 1 felt appropriate.
Also, congratulations to everyone for the first Embiid injury scare of the playoffs coming five minutes into the second half of Game 1. No time wasted.
• I think Kyle Kuzma was onto something referring to him as Spencer "Dinsh*ttie" this week. You could have pulled a fan out of the crowd at random and had as good of a chance as he did to connect on lob passes.
• The Nets shot the hell out of the ball and had no real chance in this game. Bad sign for the boys from Brooklyn.
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