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April 22, 2023

Instant observations: Tobias Harris powers Sixers to first sweep in 32 years

Tobias Harris carried the Sixers to a 96-88 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, earning Philadelphia their first playoff sweep since 1991.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• You could make an argument that Tobias Harris has been Philadelphia's most consistent performer in this series. Not best, not most impactful, but most consistent. And with an offensive void to fill in Game 4, Harris was one of the guys who took the challenge, leveraging his physical advantages against a series of Nets players who were helpless in mid-post battles with him.

As good as some of Brooklyn's wing players are, a few of them are giving up pretty considerable weight/strength when they try to battle with Harris on the block. He had a good sense of that after the last three games against Brooklyn, and Philadelphia started going to him early when he was able to set up shop. Harris doesn't often have that luxury on this team, as the de facto fourth guy on a normal night, but Philadelphia tapping into his isolation game early paid dividends later on.

As a group, the Sixers started the game cold from the field, looked like a group that hadn't spend much time together, and watched the Nets build an early double-digit lead before the first timeout of the game. The only thing/player they really had working was Harris in bully mode. He had an easy enough time attacking the likes of Mikal Bridges let alone the weaker Nets defenders — Spencer Dinwiddie and Seth Curry had possessions where they needed to guard Harris with his back to the basket, and all they managed to do was concede precious real estate before Harris rose up to score.

It was a stark reminder of what playoff basketball can often be about. There are a whole lot of moving pieces – rotations and play calls and road crowds and increased media presence and 1000 other things – but so often this game just comes down to one-on-one, matchup-centric basketball. Can you beat the guy in front of you? Can you punish a weak link better than the opponent can punish one of yours?

Harris seized his opportunities better than anyone else on the floor.

• The defensive toughness of Tyrese Maxey has been one of the biggest storylines of this season for Philadelphia. Fear of the Maxey/Harden backcourt being exploited in the playoffs was at least one small part of giving the Melton/Harden lineup extensive starting reps this season, and while he has bulked up a little bit over the last few years, Maxey isn't getting any taller. But I think he has lived up to his end of the bargain in this series, and it gives you just a little bit of hope that he might not be as exploitable as you would have thought in the later rounds.

Covering Spencer Dinwiddie isn't covering Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, but Maxey has done a good job in this series of shuffling his feet, sliding with Dinwiddie, and crowding his airspace while only really allowing him to take bad, contested midrange jumpers. His ability to bother the Nets as a pressure defender has been a nice bonus, too, with Maxey taking a couple of turnovers coast-to-coast over the last two games. 

He didn't come out on the winning end of these possessions, but I loved watching him take the challenge of covering Mikal Bridges in the fourth quarter. 

 Paul Reed is an energetic, impactful role player when he is asked to hit the other team with a wave of activity in a bench role. When he's asked to start a game and needs to clear a higher bar, you can both his inexperience and his unfamiliarity with Philadelphia's top lineups. Switches are not as clean, miscommunications are more frequent, and struggles to pick up matchups in transition pop out more.

Playing Reed (or any big, honestly) also had the side effect of leaving a Nets big man hanging around the rim on nearly every possession on offense. While Reed has been a useful finisher in pick-and-rolls and swooping in from the dunker spot, on Saturday afternoon he mostly just allowed the Nets to hang near the paint and make James Harden's life dificult as a finisher. The game opened up considerably once Harden could attack an empty paint.

However, that was the story of the first half. Reed settled into this game in the second half and flashed all of the classic Reed things we've seen at his best – he was a ballhawk on the glass, he slid into the paint for some nice finishes, and the Sixers finally found some cohesion as a group, with Reed filling his role beautifully. There were plenty of people who would have wished for Philly to go small for the entire second half. Reed showed exactly why having a big on the floor matters, playing above the Nets at every opportunity.

Every time it felt like Brooklyn was going to change the momentum of the game and string some positive possessions together, that felt like the time that Reed came out of left field to break their backs with an energy play. He was essentially the goofy, gangly P.J. Tucker, sprinkling in some of the only layups the Sixers made all day to add onto his grit-and-grind performance. 

The thing that you love with Reed is that you know you are always going to get everything he has to offer, and he has a golden retriever approach to the game – the previous plays don't matter, mistakes are temporary, and the thing in front of him is all that matters. In the playoffs, that can carry you through some tough times, and Reed came out on the other side with reasons to feel proud of himself.

• De'Anthony Melton looked well on his way to a howler in the first half, but he was one of Philadelphia's most impactful players down the stretch of this game, hitting some monster threes on kick-outs. The game truly felt over when Melton somehow tipped in his own miss with 3:58 to play on Saturday, hanging in the air as if guided by wires to push the lead to nine.

This game was still there for the taking early in the fourth quarter, with these teams locked at 70-70 and plenty of us wondering if the Sixers had enough left in the tank to finish it. Melton looked like he was playing in fast forward compared to basically everybody else on the floor, with Mr. Do Something doing just about everything. 

• In a small, 15-minute role, I thought Jalen McDaniels offered just enough to help these guys out. He scored a pair of tough buckets through self-creation and made some great contests at the rim in rotations, giving Philadelphia an extra bit of resilience on both ends. 

• However they had to get it, the Sixers earned their first sweep in a seven-game series since 1985, and their first sweep of any kind since 1991. I was not alive the last time a 4-0 sweep happened for the Sixers. Now they get to rest on their laurels for a week and hope that Joel Embiid can get healthy for a presumed matchup with Boston in round two. 

Whatever you want to say about this group and their chances moving forward, they far exceeded their opponent's will to win in a game that was do-or-die for Brooklyn. That speaks to the urgency this team feels to go get it right now, and it's the mark of a serious team. 

The Bad

• "Does James Harden look right physically?" is a question that has different answers depending on what part of the floor you're looking at. Harden attacking from the perimeter looks much like the guy he was at his apex, great at lulling defenders to sleep with repeated crossovers before blowing by them into space. That is a huge positive — or at least it would be, if Harden was giving them absolutely anything inside of the arc.

There have been attempts to put Harden's lack of finishing in this series on Philadelphia's spacing, on Brooklyn's length, and a number of smaller factors, but this is mostly on him. He is creating that early gap between him and a defender, finding himself in a favorable spot near the rim, and failing to do the rest of the work once he's there. Quite often, it doesn't look like Harden is interested in exploding toward the rim, which leads to speculation on whether he feels he can. There was a play toward the end of the first half where he burned Nic Claxton on the perimeter, looked to have a clear shot at the basket, and then essentially handed the advantage back to Claxton, allowing him to catch up and block Harden's shot emphatically.

I don't even think this angle properly conveys the space Harden had to attack. If he's trying to foul-bait here, that's a ridiculous thing to think about with a clear path to the rim. If he doesn't feel confident enough to just go full tilt and score, that's also a problem. We can only take solace in the first-step quickness for so long – eventually, Harden has to produce results going toward the hoop.

(His playmaking, it should be noted, was pretty damn important in this game.) 

• You almost wish Harden and Tyrese Maxey had swapped their aggression in shots around the rim in this game. Whereas Harden was passive and indecisive, Maxey was a wrecking ball, barrelling toward the hoop in an effort to push the pace for Philadelphia. The problem? Maxey got himself too deep, too fast, and didn't really consider how difficult it would be to finish through two and three guys at a time.

I much prefer Maxey's menality in this game to Harden's, because offense was quite difficult to come by and they were without their greatest halfcourt weapon in Joel Embiid. To even things up, you might as well try to use your fastest player to attack Brooklyn before they could get set. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, Maxey kept rolling snake eyes on those transition possessions, leading to an ugly line for the day.

My biggest issue with Maxey — he did not exploit Seth Curry's presence on the floor enough. Maxey rarely even tried to challenge Curry despite getting him on an island quite a bit in this game, and his limitations as a one-on-one attacker were apparent throughout this game.

• In a spot where your star center is hurt and you have to figure out a solution without him, I am prepared to be pretty forgiving of Doc Rivers' decisions at that position. I would even say I could wrap my mind around playing Montrezl Harrell to some degree. But playing him in a frontcourt alongside Georges Niang is just begging to be punished on the defensive end. The Sixers got away with that, somehow.

What they did not get away with was, well, playing Harrell at all. He looked horrific on offense and got a surprising amount of touches on post-ups in the first half, with Philadelphia leaning on him far too much. 

The Ugly

• The officials gave out double technicals to P.J. Tucker and the entire Brooklyn bench. I don't think I've ever heard that one before. 

• Poor Patty Mills got dropped off by two different crossover moves in the first half before his teammate Cam Johnson joined him in the shadow realm after being dropped by Harden in the second half. 

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