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April 20, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers take 3-1 lead over Nets behind a Joel Embiid classic

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BROOKLYN — The Sixers did not have their best during a Saturday afternoon matchup with the Nets, but a team suddenly filled with veterans found a way to get it over the line in the end. That way was through Joel Embiid, who put on a heroic performance in Philadelphia's 112-108 win over Brooklyn.

The Sixers now head back to Philadelphia with a 3-1 lead, thanks to Embiid's 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks, and two steals. Yes, that line is real, and it is spectacular.

Here's what I saw on Saturday afternoon.

The Good

• As good as he is, Joel Embiid has plenty of things to work on that can help him reach new heights as a player in the years to come. The most important skill for him to refine, other than shooting, may be his passing out of the post. We saw some of the best passing we have seen from Embiid all year against the Nets on Saturday, and once he can do that every night, he will be completely unguardable.

While Embiid spent some more time on the perimeter on Saturday than he did in Game 2, he did try to attack Brooklyn's smaller lineups on the interior whenever possible. But rather than trying to act like a bull in a china shop, he waited for Brooklyn's help to come and then hit the open man on the perimeter, creating easy looks for his teammates.

On top of his dominance on offense, Embiid was a one-man safety blanket on the defensive end of the floor, erasing some good Brooklyn drives to the hoop with incredible recovery speed for a guy who is out there on a bum knee. The Nets kept thinking they had enough daylight to slip past him for layups, and he proved them wrong, erasing everything within arm's reach at the rim. 

It really is frustrating that his health has failed him at the worst possible time, because it is clear how good they can be if he can just stay on the floor and get close to 100 percent. They will have to work with the version of Embiid they have, which in fairness is still pretty dang good. He was the only reason they hung around for as long as they did.

The guy is one of the best basketball players on the planet, full stop.

• Despite the highly-publicized incident that took place in the locker room last December, the Sixers have not overdone it with Jimmy Butler in the pick-and-roll. The offense has adapted around their new acquisitions, but the coaching staff did not want to abandon their principles altogether.

But if there was ever a time to roll out a heavier dose of pick-and-roll, it was now, with the Sixers able to force a lot of problematic matchups against this Brooklyn team out of that look. Jimmy Butler helped turn the game around early in the second quarter while playing in the look he loves so much, damaging Brooklyn as an attacker while still keeping his eye-level high and finding teammates.

The story was largely the same for Tobias Harris, who had the ball in his hands quite a bit early on in the game. His finishing let him down around the basket, but Harris was able to force switches so that guys like D'Angelo Russell were guarding him, and the size discrepancy there made it easy for Harris to get shots off from his favorite spots on the floor.

Offensively, the Sixers mostly continue to get what they want against the Nets. It's the other end of the floor where they need to figure things out.

(Unfortunately, the Sixers' offensive flow was disrupted by some shenanigans we will get into below.)

• This was not an overwhelming performance like he had in Game 3, but I thought Ben Simmons did an okay job of managing priorities with Embiid back in the lineup. His off-ball activity was good for the second straight game, and he was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the aforementioned passing from Embiid, using off-ball cuts to get a lot of his buckets.

D'Angelo Russell continues to get absolutely nothing going for the Nets after showing out in Game 1, and you can credit Simmons for his disappearance in this series. He has taken that assignment and absolutely owned it, badgering Russell up and down the floor over the last three games. He made three absolutely ridiculous defensive plays in the final quarter in Brooklyn, and he deserves immense kudos for what he has done to change the series on that end.

One caveat— the Sixers needed him to step up as a scorer after Butler was ejected from the game in the third quarter, and he never quite got there. The Nets were using Joe Harris to defend him for stretches late in the game, and with all due respect to Harris, there's no universe in which he should be able to stop Simmons.

I think ultimately Simmons did a lot more good than harm, but his limitations were pretty apparent without having Butler there to run the show.

• Speaking of which, you can tell how badly the Sixers missed Butler when you had to watch James Ennis attempt to run two-man game with Embiid in the second half. The Sixers' offense slowed down to a crawl, and Ennis' inability to create separation for himself off of the dribble just led to a lot of wasted time and late-clock attempts from Embiid and others.

They probably could have survived this if their shooters had come through for them, but it was a tough day from beyond the arc for Philly. 

• Mike Scott didn't do much of anything for four quarters, but boy did he rise to the occasion in the final minute.

The Bad

• Boban Marjanovic has been a big asset for the Sixers in this series, but Brooklyn's guards finally appeared to figure out that they can beat him rather easily if they don't settle for mid-range junk and floaters. Every time Boban stepped up to meet D'Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert early in the game, they had an easy time locating Jarrett Allen for dunks and layups around the basket.

This was what a lot of people feared when Brown stuck with the Boban experiment post-All-Star break in spite of some ghastly defensive performances. The Nets' guards like the mid-range area the Sixers have conceded to them, which allowed the Sixers to get away with playing Boban through the first three games, but they wisely changed their approach after figuring out it wasn't working.

Brett Brown, who said before the game he had a "high tolerance" for seeing what Boban could offer, smartly tried out a different look in the first half, giving Jonah Bolden an opportunity to take those minutes against a smaller Nets team. The way it unfolded may have looked different aesthetically, but the basic facts remained the same — the Sixers couldn't stop anyone without Embiid on the floor, with Bolden constantly caught out of position during his brief stint on the floor.

The Sixers have four backup centers, but truthfully, at times it seems like they don't have any. Saturday was one of those days.

• It's hard to get much of anything going when you don't value possessions enough. The Sixers had a brutal start to the game in the first quarter on Saturday, piling up seven turnovers in the opening 12 minutes. It's one of those games where you're reminded of the "cost" of having Embiid sit out and break continuity in the lineup.

No one should be surprised when the Sixers have stretches where they look like they just met each other because they've had very little time to gel as a unit since making the Tobias Harris trade in February. Passes were just a little bit off, their timing on motion wasn't there, and they struggled to find their legs in the first quarter.

The problem resurfaced again late in the game, with the Sixers squandering an opportunity to put the game away down the stretch. There was a bit too much overthinking on their late-game situations, and the indecisiveness cost them. It was especially painful after the Nets gifted Philly a couple of turnovers in crunch time, only for the road team to give the gift right back.

• There have been a lot of people pining for Mike Scott at small-ball center, but I'm not sure we've seen a lot of evidence to suggest that's a look that would work. When Scott is asked to defend in space, he can't seem to find the right balance, and he either ends up conceding too much space/an open jumper or an easy path to the rim, where he often fouls his guy. He's also not going to protect the rim for you.

• JJ Redick is not going to put the footage from this game in his career highlight reel. He had a number of chances to spark runs or end droughts throughout the night and he couldn't cash in. His saving grace is that he has continued to bother Joe Harris, who must have thought the series ended after Game 1.

Well, that, and the fact that he hit a monster three in the game's final minute to put the Sixers in the lead. Redick's ability to shake off bad stretches and still rise confidently is a touch underrated.

The Ugly

• Ben Simmons and Jared Dudley do not appear to be on good terms at this point in the series.

This is kind of a crappier version of the feud between LeBron James and DeShawn Stevenson years back. Dudley responded to a horrible performance with a better game on Saturday, and we'll see where this goes from here.

• After I typed the above, things got a hell of a lot worse in Brooklyn, with Dudley starting a near rumble in the third quarter.

A few scattered thoughts here. I'm torn between thinking it was dumb for Butler to put himself in jeopardy of being ejected and excusing it for defending his teammate in the heat of the moment. I think I probably lean toward the latter, because it would feel pretty ridiculous to kill a guy for coming to the aid of the team's franchise player in a fracas.

The flagrant they called on Embiid also seemed like a load of crap, considering the play ended up looking like a clean block on the replay. That mattered within the context of Game 4, but Embiid has now picked up a pair of flagrants in just three games played in the playoffs, and that's something to monitor as the playoffs move forward.

I also think it's a coward's act to eject Butler there for responding, but the officials weren't going to eject a guy on the home team only. Nothing starts there if not for Dudley gooning it up, and giving Butler an equal punishment seems pretty backward to me. You're basically rewarding the instigator in this scenario.

But that's how the NBA tends to officiate these things. So it goes.

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