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April 18, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers coast past Nets in Game 3 behind dominant Ben Simmons

BROOKLYN — The Sixers learned shortly before tip-off that they'd be without Joel Embiid for Game 3 in Brooklyn. As it turns out, it didn't end up mattering, because Ben Simmons delivered one of the best performances of his young career in a 131-115 victory over the Nets in Game 3.

Simmons was at the heart of everything for the Sixers in Game 3, and after having to handle a boatload of trash talk between games, he handed the Nets their butts on their home floor. Talk about a response.

Here's what I saw on Thursday, with more to come tonight and tomorrow.

The Good

• I'm not sure if the plan was going to be the same if Joel Embiid was active, but early in the game the Sixers let Jimmy Butler initiate a lot of their offense. Whether or not you want to call him the "point guard" feels unimportant to me because he was the man in charge of the offense regardless of the label you want to put on him.

For Philadelphia, it added a little bit of uncertainty for the Nets to figure out. They went heavier with pick-and-roll action, and Butler was able to get to the basket or find open teammates with ease in the early going. It also minimized the adjustment he had to make when the starters made way for the second unit, with Butler basically assuming the same role once the likes of Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, and James Ennis made their way into the game.

Butler, who admitted himself after Game 1 that he needed to focus more on getting other players involved, did just that on Thursday. I have been impressed by his poise and adaptation within this series, as he takes on what seems to be a new role depending on the game.  

A good strategic move from the head coach, and Butler deserves the lion's share of the credit for making the most of the arrangement.

• Ben Simmons picked up right where he left off in Game 2, and it was the defensive end of the floor where he made his biggest statement. With Simmons conceding a good portion of the ballhandling duties to Butler, he had a lot more energy to chase Nets players around on defense, and boy did he ever make use of it.

When Simmons was on one of Brooklyn's trio of guards, D'Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and Spencer Dinwiddie weren't able to get much of anything going. Good communication from the guys around him helped, but most of the credit belongs to Simmons, who slithered around screens, stood his ground when guys were able to get a head of steam on drives, and came up with some highlight-reel plays, including a spectacular perimeter block at the end of the first quarter.

Simmons sometimes gets chided for seeming like he's "above" everything going on around him, and he is certainly very sure himself. But I thought that was a huge asset on Thursday night. He didn't get goaded into forcing things with the Brooklyn crowd booing his behind off (and after listening to trash talk from Jared Dudley between games), and he struck a really nice balance of hunting his own shot and finding his guys for good looks near and far from the hoop.

At his best, Simmons is a disrupter regardless of whether he has the ball or not. And he seemed to be everywhere for Philly in Game 3, coming up with deflections, putbacks, and well-timed rotations whenever they needed them.

This was as mature of a performance as I can remember from Simmons, who looked every bit like a foundational piece of a future (and perhaps present) contender. The Sixers needed him to have a big night without Embiid out there, and he delivered big time.

• Starting Greg Monroe was pretty much an abomination, but one thing it allowed the Sixers to do was preserve the continuity the Sixers have on their second unit. Boban Marjanovic continued to prove he can do damage in this series, and he has looked a lot better on defense through three games than he looked during the regular season.

At the very least, Boban did a much better job of contesting shots than Monroe did without getting drawn out of position. It seems he has found the sweet spot within the defense against Brooklyn's rim-running centers, with Boban trusting his length can bother Brooklyn's guards without overexerting himself.

And on the other end, the Nets had absolutely no chance to stop Boban on the offensive glass. He's simply too big to keep off of the glass, and he has punished Brooklyn on the interior during this series.

• Welcome back to the party, Tobias Harris. After going missing in Game 1 and finally getting his swagger back in the second half of Game 2, Game 3 served as his coming out party, with Harris absolutely lighting up the Nets in the first half.

There is part of me that feels this was just a product of getting him more touches early in the game. Instead of being a passenger, Harris got the ball in his hands in all over the place, leading the team in transition and running sets in the halfcourt. We saw the first pull-up three in transition that I can remember seeing from Harris in a while, something that has been a staple in his game over the last few years.

The simplest answer may be the correct one here — when you have the chance to stretch your wings early and feel your way into the game, it's a lot more likely you're going to start building momentum and get on a roll. That's exactly what Harris did.

• JJ Redick vs. Joe Harris, in theory, should be quite a shooting matchup. But only one guy has bothered to show up for this series, and he wears red, white, and blue.

The Sixers were able to spring Redick for some open looks against Brooklyn's defense by drawing attention to pick-and-rolls involving Butler on the side of the floor, then sending Redick off of a staggered screen on the other side of the floor. Redick was either able to get an open shot off of the initial look or use a pump fake to send his defender flying past him, using a side-step to find himself the easy shot.

It was a good performance from Redick, and it was aided by good play design from Brown and Co. By the time Brooklyn adjusted to the basic read, the Sixers hit them with counters, and Philly was able to open up a comfortable lead early in the second half as a result.

The Bad

• We'll get to the Greg Monroe portion of the game below, but the biggest criticism I have of Brett Brown in this game is that he left himself in a position where he had to start Monroe in the first place. It's an indictment of the process that brought them here that they had to start a guy they signed in April in their opening playoff series.

If the Sixers dedicate more time to developing Jonah Bolden during the season, they would have been able to put him out there to start the game without fearing he'd look like a deer in the headlights on defense. If the Sixers spent more time allowing Ben Simmons to play some small-ball center, instead of shoehorning terrible players into the spot for 3/4 of the year, perhaps they could have just gone small out of the gate to run Brooklyn out of the gym.

The coach can't control the roster and the odd fits of some of their players, but he can choose his priorities during the season. Developing better options behind Embiid should have been near the top of the priority list, and starting Monroe shows they failed big time there.

I understand that when you build a roster around a unique franchise center, it's not ideal to be in a scenario where he can't play. But with his health history, the Sixers should be constantly preparing for this outcome. And the thing is, they know it's a trouble spot, or they wouldn't have gone after Boban in the Harris trade or sought out Monroe so late in the year.

• The Sixers had the game basically in hand heading into the final five minutes of the third quarter, and the Nets looked to be wilting. What they did from there defies explanation, and with foul trouble muddying things up, the Sixers let Brooklyn right back into the game.

Brown went conservative when Harris picked up his fourth foul with four and change to play, and made the opposite decision with Boban when he picked up his fourth with 4:09 to play. With Brooklyn playing small, I understood the decision, but he ended up picking up his fifth before the quarter closed, and it forced the Sixers to turn to Monroe before they would have liked to go back to him.

From there, the Sixers simply self-destructed. An errant pass from James Ennis, a missed assignment on the weak side, and my personal favorite, Ben Simmons rushing to get a shot with 18 seconds left in the quarter and the shot clock turned off, which led to a turnover and a Brooklyn bucket the other way.

Those sort of plays simply cannot happen, and if Simmons truly believes he is the point guard of this team, that's an inexcusable mistake. It is your job to know time and situation, and he clearly didn't there.

The Ugly

• This sentence really says it all — Philadelphia's franchise player was forced to sit a playoff game due to an aching knee, and the best response the Sixers had was to start a player they signed on April 3rd. There's obviously no replacing Embiid, but it's almost beyond belief that this was their best plan of action.

Instead of trying to fix their backup center problem with volume next year, perhaps the Sixers should look to bring in a real player behind Embiid. His health is an obvious concern for the long-term and short term, and having to turn to a guy they basically grabbed off of the street is just insane.

And Monroe didn't exactly justify Brown's decision to turn to him as a starter, either. Within the first two minutes of the game, the Nets had already pulled down three offensive rebounds, with two of them coming from his matchup, Jarrett Allen. If Monroe can't even occupy space and prevent guys from pulling down easy ones, he serves no purpose on the floor.

The Sixers went on a run with him on the floor to start the second half, but that was in spite of him, not because of anything Monroe was doing. When he was off the floor, the Sixers made pretty easy work of the Nets. Philly better hope they're getting Embiid back sooner than later, because hoo boy, this was not a great option.

• The next time Jared Dudley wants to start beef with an opposing player between games, he should probably remember to show up for the game. And maybe do something about Simmons thoroughly outclassing his team on both sides of the ball.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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