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April 15, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers dominate Nets in Game 2 behind Ben Simmons triple-double

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041519-BenSimmons-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) reacts to the crowd after a score against the Brooklyn Nets during the first quarter in game two of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.

After losing in rather humiliating fashion in Game 1, the Sixers delivered the haymaker Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was expecting in Game 2. Ben Simmons rebounded from a poor performance with a triple-double and a statement game, leading the Sixers to a 145-123 victory over Brooklyn in Game 2.

The series now shifts to Brooklyn, but not before the Sixers get a couple of days off and a chance to continue refining their new-look rotation. Here's what I saw on Monday night.

The Good

• The booing debates that took place over the weekend were a side story compared to the more important issue: Ben Simmons did not show up ready to go in Game 1, and the Sixers were punished for it all over the floor.

Rather than shrink from the moment, Simmons responded to the jeers by coming out and imposing his will against Brooklyn to start Game 2. His demeanor was completely different, and Simmons was at the center of pretty much everything for Philadelphia's offense, pushing the ball in transition, demanding it in the post, and making sure he was going to control the game.

I love watching Simmons thread passes through tight windows, but he's a considerably better player when he's looking to attack and then passing off of that, rather than passing first and worrying about scoring later. After showing too much timidity in Game 1, he made it a point to attack the rim with bad intentions, and that led to passing success later on.

That's all most people on the outside ever want to see from Simmons. And the crowd that Simmons took issue with after Game 1 responded in a big way to his effort, rising to their feet to give him a standing ovation early. That's the full Philly experience in the span of a few days.

(Simmons' teammates were unsung heroes in his great start to the game, by the way. Everyone from Boban Marjanovic to Jimmy Butler hit the Nets with improvised screens as Simmons was on his way toward the basket, making it very tough for Brooklyn to mount their best defense. Good picks don't show up in the box score, but they are essential.)

• I don't particularly care about Simmons putting up a triple-double, but it must be marked down that it was accomplished. It was written.

• The Sixers didn't make any major schematic adjustments early, but they did make a notable change to the rotation. T.J. McConnell stayed in his spot on the bench when the Sixers turned to the second unit, with Brett Brown turning to Jimmy Butler as the backup point guard.

The effect that has on Philadelphia's lineup is pretty large. It keeps the Sixers larger and more athletic, and with James Ennis back in the rotation, it also kept a heck of a lot more shooting on the floor. Philadelphia didn't exactly blow away the Nets with that look, but they did something more important — they maintained some defensive integrity with Joel Embiid off of the floor.

This is the look the Sixers should stick with the rest of the way, as far as I'm concerned. If they had another big-ish wing they trusted instead of playing Jonah Bolden at the four, I think they would really be cooking with gas, but they're on the right track here.

• Joel Embiid did not have his loudest effort against the Brooklyn Nets, but he did something that will make a lot of Sixers fans happy: he basically ignored the three-point line. While it only led to three offensive rebounds for Embiid individually, Embiid's presence near the rim forced the Nets to account for him and turned it into a bigger struggle than the Nets would have wanted.

What I liked about their use of him on offense is the Sixers kept him closer to the basket without asking him to take a beating on the low block every possession. He posted just enough to take advantage of his gifts, turned to the rip-through move just enough, everything about his performance was just enough. Philadelphia's dominant second half also bought him some extra rest, and the Sixers have to be thrilled about that with two days off before their next game on Thursday.

• If Boban Marjanovic is going to be on the floor in the playoffs, this is how good he has to be offensively. The Nets hunted him a ton on the defensive end of the floor, as everyone would have expected, and Boban's limitations there were taken advantage of rather frequently.

But on offense, Boban was just about lights out. He towered over Brooklyn at the rim, and when they tried to sag off of him to dare him into shooting jumpers, the plan backfired, with Boban comfortably hitting shots throughout the game.

When the Sixers can simply trade buckets with an opponent without Embiid on the floor, that is a win for them. (One area I'd like to see some improvement on offensively: Boban settling less when he gets the ball against a smaller player in the post. Too often he ends up taking shots from 10-12 feet instead of being the magnifying glass to Brooklyn's ants. Burn those suckers, my man.)

• Things got pretty nervy at the end of the first half, with Brooklyn taking Philly's best punch and staying within one point heading into halftime. Or at least that looked like their best punch, because the Sixers came out and smacked Brooklyn around in the opening minutes of the third quarter.

And that all started with their defense. The Sixers kept Russell guessing with some shifts in coverage, and rather than resorting to zone like a bunch of maroons, the Sixers got it done with well-timed help and a little bit of extra effort. The standout play from that stretch was Jimmy Butler tipping a pass that looked to be going out of bounds, only for a gimpy Joel Embiid to save it and spring Tobias Harris for what turned into a clear-path foul.

It was a 21-2 run before it was all said and done, and it changed the complexion of the game. They scored 51 effing points in the third quarter. How does that happen in a playoff game?

• JJ Redick had more fouls than points in Saturday's Game 1 loss. He was not about to let that happen again.

Brown spoke over the weekend of his own responsibility to help get his shooters going, and I thought the team did a much better job of weaponizing Brooklyn's sagging against them. There were more dribble handoffs using Simmons as a screener, and when the Nets overplayed Redick on those, Simmons did damage as a roller, either attacking himself or finding open teammates.

• Welcome back, James Ennis. It is absolutely mind-boggling how much it matters for this team to have even a single playable wing on the bench. 

Ennis is not going to do anything spectacular, but he is, as Brown likes to say, an adult. He communicates well on switches, he only drives or shoots when it's the clear right decision, and he attacks the offensive glass like someone whose life depends on it.

Now just think how good this team would be if they had a second good bench wing or a capable scoring guard on the bench. This team really isn't that far away from being a real-deal threat.

• A good Mike Scott game. Not much more to say beyond that.

• It says a lot about this performance from the Sixers that they didn't get great individual performances from either Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris, but it also says a lot about both guys that they didn't stop competing when touches went away from them or shots weren't falling. Harris ended up going on a nice little run in the second half, and while it ultimately didn't mean much as it pertains to Monday's result, getting some momentum going heading into Game 3 is a good thing.

The Bad

• I didn't have absolutely any issue with the flagrant foul call the refs called Joel Embiid for. He caught Jarrett Allen with an elbow square in the jaw, and if the roles were reversed, the home crowd would have been calling for Allen's head on a platter.

But the way Embiid was officiated in general was downright puzzling. Brooklyn's guards that were helping on Embiid were making all sorts of contact with the big man as he went to put shots up around the basket, and there were several plays on the other end where the Nets got the benefit of the whistle that Embiid didn't.

The playoffs are a more physical setting for sure, but that doesn't mean you can just mug guys.

• Philadelphia's defense started off the game on the right foot, and Brooklyn sustained their offense with some really difficult shotmaking from D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie. They even threw some different looks at Russell at the point-of-attack, hedging and trapping him at times, but overall the scheme stayed the same.

Over time, the energy that the Sixers came out with waned a bit and their communication was not as crisp, and that allowed the tough shotmaking to snowball into just shotmaking. Those jumpers Russell and Dinwiddie hit from deep became mid-range looks, and when the Sixers tried to press on those guys to get them out of rhythm, Allen snuck behind Philly for a few easy dunks at the rim.

• Another area of concern from the end of the regular season that popped up in Game 2: Philadelphia's inattentiveness on the defensive glass. Sometimes the Sixers are so concerned with getting out and running on the break that they turn their backs on rebounds, expecting someone else to clean up the mess, and opponents have taken advantage of that the longer the season has gone on.

Brett Brown almost had a stroke when Rodion Kurucs scooped up his own floor board and deposited an uncontested dunk in the second quarter, and rightfully so. The Sixers have size advantages all over the floor against Brooklyn, but they're not leveraging them in this way.

The Ugly

• Not sure what the justification is for Zhaire Smith being inactive. I think if you're at the point where Greg Monroe needs to come into a game, you're pretty screwed anyway. So you might as well keep some wing depth on the bench, especially considering the minutes limit for Ennis.

• Zone defense is for cowards. Maybe Kenny Atkinson should go coach in the ACC or something, he and Jim Boeheim would be buddies with their weak ass excuse for defense.


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