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April 23, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers make mockery of Nets in Game 5 to face Raptors in second round

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The Sixers have established a pattern of of making everything too dramatic over the last couple seasons, but there was nothing dramatic except the gap in the scoreboard against Brooklyn in Game 5. Philadelphia came out and beat the stuffing out of the Nets to close out the series, a 122-100 victory that was over the moment both teams took the floor on Tuesday.

This was as comprehensive a win as you're ever going to see from the Sixers, who absorbed Brooklyn's best punch in Game 4 and made sure that would be the end of it. Game 5 showed everything this Sixers team can be, and they will need to be the best version of themselves in order to have a chance against Toronto in Round 2.

I told you guys the Sixers should be prepared for the kitchen sink on Tuesday. Brooklyn had everything except for water and pipes.

Here's what I saw on Tuesday, with more to come.

The Good

• You could not have asked for a better start to the game for a Sixers team looking to close out the Nets. Okay, maybe they shouldn't have turned the ball over on their first possession, but aside from that, they were lights out.

Urgency has been a problem for this team at times throughout the year, but they showed Brooklyn a healthy amount of respect with their opening 8-0 run that forced Brooklyn to call a timeout. The pain kept coming, with Philadelphia holding the Nets scoreless until the 6:09 mark of the first quarter, right after three of their starters hit the bench for the first time.

The two sides revealed who they were in this moment. The home team, given extra juice by an electric crowd in South Philly, came out and absolutely bullied their younger, smaller opponent. They were quicker to every loose ball, fought for every inch on defense, and leveraged their size around the basket over and over again.

Philadelphia spent most of the last two days stressing words like "mindset" and "discipline" and said they didn't want to go back to Brooklyn for a Game 6. They backed up that talk with action, and you can't ask for much more than that.

• I stressed this in the preview for Tuesday's game, but Jimmy Butler has been a difference maker in this series without putting up gaudy stat lines outside of Game 1. He has been the glue guy they have needed in their starting five, capable of switching into different roles and creating plays from nothing at a moment's notice.

There were times this year where you could see on Butler's face that he wasn't happy with how he was being used, or where he was in the offensive pecking order during sequences of games. We have seen exactly none of that in the postseason. "Playoff Jimmy" has been a game-changer on both ends of the floor, deflecting passes, finding teammates after soaring through the air for offensive rebounds, and occasionally hunting his own offense when the game has dictated it.

Getting this version of Butler would change Philadelphia's outlook in round two and beyond. It is not always going to be his night or his matchup, but he is obviously capable of impacting the game all over the floor if he brings the right mentality every night. The Sixers have to feel great about where he's at right now.

• Call Joel Embiid whatever you want: the crown jewel, the franchise player, Plan A. There's an endless list of buzzwords the team has used to describe him over the course of this season. The bottom line is that he's one of the best basketball players in the world, and the Sixers are going to go as far as he can take them.

Brooklyn's miserable start was a product of many things, but Embiid was at the center of Philadelphia's early dominance. Something Kenny Atkinson spotlighted before the game was really apparent on Thursday — Embiid is not a great defensive player because he blocks a lot of shots, but because he leaves you unsettled with when he picks and chooses to contest your shots. There were possessions were Brooklyn tossed up wild floaters and runners out of fear, only for Embiid to never contest the shot at all, waiting underneath the basket to collect the defensive rebound.

The other end was the same sort of dominance we've come to expect from Embiid against these Nets. The Nets tried to play small ball once the Sixers got rolling, and spoiler alert, that ain't the way to slow down one of the biggest and baddest dudes in the league. Embiid was keeping pace with Brooklyn's entire team on the scoreboard through about a quarter and a half, and that was a fair representation of the game we were watching.

He also spliced in the usual Embiid hijinks during their dominant opening half. He got whistled for a tech after punctuating a first-half dunk with a finger point at Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Just one man's opinion, but that's a corny-ass tech, and D'Angelo Russell missing the ensuing free throw felt like justice.

In any case, this series was a five-game reminder of what Embiid means to this team. He's an incredible talent and an elite competitor, and you should treasure every minute you get to watch him play.

• Ben Simmons deserves a round of applause for the job he did on D'Angelo Russell in this series. Russell was a victim of his own poor shot selection in some cases, but the vast majority of the credit belongs to Simmons, who did not allow him to breathe for four straight games and completely broke his spirit by the time Game 5 rolled around.

If you were just gazing at the box score, you wouldn't really be able to put Simmons' impact on the game into focus. But if you watched him shadow Russell away from the ball or leap in front of one of his many bricks before they went up, Simmons left no doubt how impactful he was in this series.

I know it gets pushed into the background from time to time because of the chatter about his jumper, but Simmons has the tools to be one of the best defenders in the league if he sets his mind to it every night. If he hits his ceiling as a defender, the rest almost doesn't even matter, because no one will score on the Sixers with apex Embiid and Simmons.

• Tobias Harris' reemergence as a three-level threat has been huge for Philadelphia in this series, but there has been another important development for their starting four in round one. Harris stepped up his game on defense a bit against the Nets, and that's going to be pivotal if the Sixers hope to beat the Raptors in round two.

Toronto has lineups where they have several players on the floor at a time who can take you off of their dribble, and Harris has struggled to defend in isolation at times this season. But over the final three games in this series, Harris actually held up fairly well when asked to contain guys one-on-one. Harris had a particularly nice sequence in the first half of Game 5, where he locked up Russell so badly that Brooklyn's lead guard dribbled himself into a shot-clock violation without realizing it.

He's going to have to replicate this against Toronto. The Sixers did not acquire Harris until after their final matchup with the Raptors in the regular season, so his impact on this matchup will be pivotal on both ends. 

The Bad

• It would be extremely on brand for me to rip the Sixers for some small errors during a dominant blowout to end a playoff series, but I will resist. They deserve their praise for this game, not a bunch of second-guessing from the sideline.

Okay, forget that I'll use this space to clown on the Nets.

It must have been an especially disheartening night for GM Sean Marks and one of Brooklyn's owners, who had to eat sizable fines for their complaints about the officiating in the series. Can you imagine storming into the officials' locker room to make a point and inspire your team, only for your team to show up the next game and get the absolute crap kicked out of them for 48 minutes?

The players should probably pool together and pay Marks' fine for him after that atrocity. Talk about not bothering to show up.

The Ugly

• There was one major damper on Philadelphia's huge win over Brooklyn on Tuesday. Mike Scott, one of their only trustworthy bench players and the man who hit the biggest shot in their Game 4 victory, came up lame toward the end of the second quarter with what looked to be a non-contact injury. Philly was forced to call a timeout as he walked gingerly back to the bench and straight through to the locker room.

The Sixers are calling it a "right heel contusion," and given the non-contact nature of the injury, there will be a lot of fears about issues with the Achilles.

There is no word yet on the severity or even specificity of Scott's injury, but losing him for any period of time would be a monster blow for the Sixers. His toughness and shooting are critical for this team, and with their depth already in rough shape, losing another body would leave them stretched impossibly thin against one of the league's deepest teams.

• Jared Dudley is not going to be welcomed back to Philadelphia anytime soon, from what I gather.

• How fitting that the zone-playing cowards got run out of the damn building to end their season. Play real defense for 48 minutes, you rec-league wannabe suckers.

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