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February 07, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers shut short-handed Nets down in second half to pick up win

With the visiting Nets down two stars, the Sixers were able to ride contributions from their own big three to pick up a 124-108 victory on Saturday night. Joel Embiid led the way with 33 points for Philadelphia.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Ben Simmons' approach to this game is exactly what I'd love to see from him every night, and the exact sort of game he should be playing against a team like the Nets. Brooklyn doesn't offer much resistance on the perimeter or at the rim, and he almost perfectly balanced attacking the basket with setting up his teammates.

This was a night where I thought Simmons' assist total didn't reflect the value (or potential value, I guess) of the passing he offered. Simmons got deep into the paint when he attacked Brooklyn on Saturday night, putting legitimate pressure on the rim before throwing lasers to either corner for open three-point attempts. 

It might not seem like it, but there is a huge difference when he's getting to that spot instead of looking to pass as soon as he hits the free-throw line. The Danny Green three in this clip is a great example of what can happen when he fully commits:

His difference-making performance, though, was on the defensive end. For the first half of this game, Doc Rivers chose to stick him on guys like Jeff Green while Danny Green and Seth Curry took turns guarding James Harden. That allowed Brooklyn's lead guard to get basically whatever and whenever he wanted for the first half and change, keeping the Nets in a game they hardly deserved to be in.

As soon as Simmons was switched onto Harden about midway through the third quarter, there was a night-and-day difference. He clearly relished taking that assignment and slowing down the guy who he had been tied to in trade rumors, and with Harden jammed up before he could get a head of steam going, everything else fell into place for Philly. 

There are a lot of problems for Philly to solve in this matchup when Brooklyn has the other two guys healthy and on the floor with Harden. But being able to move Simmons around and put out fires is a huge luxury, and it's not one to be taken for granted.

(My only real complaint is directed at the coach, not Simmons. I would have loved to see Simmons spending much more time guarding Harden, and they may have been able to put this one away sooner if he took the assignment from the start. Rivers has chosen to save Simmons for closing stretches on the opposing team's best player, and you can't argue with the effectiveness, but those sort of decisions loom larger in playoff games.)

• This felt like one of Joel Embiid's quieter big nights, not the sort of all-consuming, dominant effort we've seen him come up with time and time again this season. Then you look up at the scoreboard and all of a sudden he has 31 points at the end of the third quarter, and you wonder why you're questioning how he got there.

There was a lull for Embiid in the second quarter, admittedly after he sat for the first 6-7 minutes of it, and there was a lot of settling after he got off to a quick start in the opening period. Whether it was a point of emphasis in the halftime meeting or not, there was a marked change in how they attacked Brooklyn's bigs after halftime, with Embiid spending a bit more time attacking in space, a point of emphasis we touched on in our preview of the game.

It's critical that they're able to keep him producing and impacting the game on offense even if he's not burying guys through the basket or making every single midrange jumper he puts up. He has begun to find chemistry with multiple players in handoffs and pick-and-rolls, from Curry to Tobias Harris, and those partnerships should be mutually beneficial if they execute correctly.

Of course, there was also a stretch in the third quarter where he was sort of putting poor Norvel Pelle through the basket and getting to the line, so it's not like we missed out on the Embiid experience entirely. 

(One smaller positive — I thought Embiid did a pretty good job of finding the middle ground between Harden and DeAndre Jordan when the former got into the paint and set up the lob threat. Jordan ultimately got a few buckets around the rim, but it could have been a lot uglier with poor defense from the big guy at the rim.)

• Structurally, the Nets are prone to giving up an abundance of second-chance points and points in the paint. The big guy can certainly pile up the latter, but attacking the offensive glass is not really his line of work a lot of the time.

Harris decided it was his responsibility to exploit Brooklyn's weakness on the glass, and he did a damn good job of it, coming up with four offensive rebounds in the first half alone with the Nets losing track of him over and over again. Between some tip-in buckets and a couple of clean layup attempts he got as a result of his hard work, he managed to get turn effort into easy points at the rim.

Once again, the Harris and bench players lineup to open the fourth quarter did a great job of executing to keep the Nets at bay and basically close out the game. It seems a bit silly that we're not seeing more of that group in first halves, considering the struggles the all-bench groups have had recently. Nevertheless, Harris has been great as the anchor of those groups, scoring on and off the ball and serving as the bridge to the full closing lineup.

• Curry and Green have not exactly been burning the nets down recently, and though they looked to be on their way to another tough game after 24 minutes, it only seemed to take one make for each guy to remove the lid from the basket in the second half.

For Curry, his breakthrough came with a made three near the end of the first half, something that had to feel good for him as he continues to fight through some health-related issues after a bout with COVID-19. After one shot fell, he got a little more confident attacking the basket, and if he can pick it back up the Sixers will instantly become a much more dangerous team.

All it took for Green was (evidently) getting blatantly fouled and then picking up a tech for the no-call. Fired up after the no-call, Green came down the floor and knocked down the next two threes he got in the corner, and he followed up those with a nice floater out of a pick-and-roll with Embiid, something he shouldn't be asked to do often but is a nice little wrinkle in emergency situations. 

• Philadelphia's execution in pick-and-roll defense, specifically when they used ICE coverage against side pick-and-rolls, has been a bit better of late, and that was critical against a team with Harden leading the way. It felt like they were missing just one rotation on a few plays that were otherwise well-executed, but Embiid and Dwight Howard both jammed up possessions near the sideline on separate occasions, and I think you'll start to see more and more of that as time goes on.

The Bad

• Philadelphia's three stars mostly did what they needed to do on Saturday night. You definitely can't say the same about the supporting cast, who have been lagging behind the starters in a big way for most of the last few weeks.

I suppose that starts with Shake Milton, who was the leader of the second unit to start the year and has regressed some after a terrific start. The main problem for Milton is that his shooting, which has always been a strength dating back to college, has yet to come around this year. His prolonged cold stretch has gone on so long that Milton is passing up good looks from three and driving into traffic, a habit that killed them when Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris both did it last season.

The good news? Milton did a good job of overcoming that cold streak and finding a way to score on Saturday. But generally speaking, his cold spell has added another question mark in a second unit filled with non-shooters and/or questionable shooters. Teams are loading up to stop the basic pick-and-roll sets that are featured with the second group, and they don't much care whether, for example, Matisse Thybulle gets an open look from three.

The guys on the floor are not exactly making the case to keep this group completely intact down the stretch. There will be bounce-backs, but Daryl Morey needs to be active heading into the trade deadline if this stretch is any indication of what's to come.

• The bench's limitations are even more jarring at times on the defensive end of the floor, whether they're mixed in with the starters or playing in the all-backup units Rivers loves to feature for some reason.

There are physical limitations for some of these guys, but most of the errors being made are mental mistakes on the back end. Furkan Korkmaz, for example, could not seem to figure out where to be for most of the game, and his assignments/rotations were not exactly difficult ones to figure out. When you see that you need to get to Joe Harris in the corner, there shouldn't be any hesitation. 

Anytime Pelle is walking back to the bench and earning a standing ovation from the Nets because they were able to cut into a Sixers lead, you know you have gone wrong somewhere along the way. The second half was better for all parties, but they could have crushed this team a bit easier if you're asking me.

The Ugly

• If a team with good guards draws the Nets in the first round, Brooklyn might have to score 140 points a game to win. Their inability to stop perimeter penetration is even more jarring in person than it is on TV — there were moments where the Sixers just straight-up walked to the rim and scored without so much as a token effort to stop them.

To be clear, I think the healthy version of this team is capable of winning that sort of series, it's just wild how big the gap is between their offense and defense. 

• I thought it was a strange decision from Rivers to re-insert Simmons and Embiid into this game with the Nets clearly running a second-place race and not interested in putting Harden back in with the game basically locked up. If you're not able to see out a game against this rag-tag Nets team with a 15-point lead and around 5-6 minutes on the clock, you have a huge problem on your hands.

There was a brief moment where it looked to be headed for disaster, with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot diving at Embiid's legs and briefly causing the big guy to fall, flexing and rubbing his right knee on the way down. If the Nets had brought Harden back at any point and played to try to win the game, I would have understood it, but it felt completely unnecessary to expose either guy to more wear-and-tear at the point where they were put in the game. 

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