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April 17, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers take 2-0 lead on Nets after solving double-team puzzle

With Joel Embiid's work as an offensive facilitator and Tyrese Maxey's scoring punch, the Sixers proved simply too talented for the Nets in their Game 2 win.

Tyrese Maxey scored a game-leading 33 points in a hard-fought Game 2 win, with the Sixers turning Brooklyn's double teams against them in a 96-84 victory.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid is likely to win this year's MVP award for being the best version of the guy we've all known he can be for some time. What he has shown in Philadelphia's first two playoff games is that he might be able to go a level past that — take the dominant scoring, the attention he draws in the halfcourt, the rim protection, and then add on the ability (and willingness) to clean the glass and run the floor. You have a player who can control a game even as a team does everything in their power to prevent you from even catching the ball.

Brooklyn mostly stuck with their game plan from Game 1, selling out to double Embiid and trapping him quickly when he got the ball. Philadelphia's biggest problem was not getting it to him enough — Embiid's entry passers were too hesitant when he had chances to get the ball around the elbow. When the ball got there, he did an excellent job to invite the pressure and then look for other players around the floor, whether that was a corner shooter or a guy sitting in the dunker spot.

After sputtering out of the gate to open the second half, the Sixers finally figured out that getting the ball to Embiid and inviting the double team was their path to great offense. Over and over again, the Nets flooded Embiid when he had the ball in his hands, and he was spectacular at reading the floor and making sure he leveraged that attention into quality looks elsewhere. The Sixers went from being stuck in the mud on offense to a corner-three machine, bringing a crowd dying for something to cheer about into the game.

Hold that thought...

• Tobias Harris has often referred to himself as the barometer of the Sixers, someone whose play and intensity are an indicator of how everything else is going. In the first half of this game, Harris was in foul trouble as a result of lazy reach-ins and didn't do much to impact the game otherwise. But he was the guy who came out of halftime with a chip on his shoulder, taking it up a level on defense while tying things together on offense.

At his best, you are reminded of why anyone would have thought to pay Harris a boatload of money in the first place. He broke up a Nets possession by darting into a passing lane, dunking on the ensuing transition possession. He scored on an entry pass from Tucker with the Nets in scramble mode, rising up in traffic with only one job left to do. There he was for some loose change on a transition possession, turning a missed three-point attempt into a valuable two points. He even served as a passing hub at times with the Nets going through their post-double rotations, making some well-placed passes when the Sixers needed them. 

Brooklyn's plan for this series is a bet (at least in part) that players like Harris can't hurt them enough to second-guess their doubling against Embiid. The Nets were forced to rethink that approach in the second half of this game, not all because of Harris' contributions, but at least partly because of them. And to top it all off, Harris made did some nice work against smaller defenders in the second half, using matchups with guys like Seth Curry to pick up some easy ones. 

It was a reminder that yes, this guy who is probably going to play basically every meaningful crunch-time possession for the Sixers is pretty important. 

Back to Embiid...

• Another way to combat pressure defense in the middle of the floor is to simply not allow a team to get set up in the first place. With James Harden in a supreme funk to open this game, Embiid took it upon himself to go coast-to-coast and handle the transition attack himself, bringing back memories of the half-season before Harden arrived. It allowed Embiid to pick up a couple of easy buckets in transition, and when the Nets attempted to wall him off, Embiid made sure to hit the shooters flanking him on the break.

This was not his best game scoring the basketball, I think we can all reasonably conclude, in part because of a lack of opportunity and in part because his touch wasn't great when they gave him chances to go at guys. But with the Nets relenting on the pressure late in the game, Embiid took his chances against the much smaller Royce O'Neale, who threw some hard shots at Embiid but had no chance to stop him.

At the end of the day, Embiid managed to leave his imprint on this one, and if you would have told me they could win this style of game a year ago, I probably wouldn't have believed you.

(Thinking out loud: A game like this makes you wonder how much closer the Sixers might have gotten to a title over the last half-decade if they had simply had healthy Embiid past the first round of the playoffs. Being in good physical form allowed him to impact the game far beyond putting it in the basket.)

• How did I leave Tyrese Maxey until the final part of the good section? You have to save the best for last, of course. 

Tyrese Maxey didn't necessarily have a bad game against the Nets on Saturday, but he kicked off the series with something closer to a whimper than a bang. With the Sixers needing a spark on offense on Monday night, Maxey announced his arrival to the playoffs in a big way, powering Philly alongside Joel Embiid in the early going.

Brooklyn is a pretty good tune-up for Maxey leading into a potential second-round date with Boston, boasting the sort of tough wing defenders who can slow him down and keep him from cooking. It was encouraging to see Maxey show no fear in the face of Mikal Bridges, an excellent isolation defender who he cooked pretty badly a couple of times in the first half. With nobody standing between him and the rim but Bridges, Maxey used the speed advantage to coast past the bigger man, drawing cheers from the home faithful.

As has often been the case this year, though, Maxey's ability to light it up from deep was central to the story of this game. With Brooklyn committing nearly all their resources toward Embiid in the middle of the floor, Maxey was the frequent beneficiary of open looks on the perimeter. He had a hilarious line entering the fourth quarter – Maxey had rung up 23 points without a single rebound or assist, which was all well and good for Philadelphia.

Watching him go to work as a shooter is quite fun as a basketball nerd – he's gotten so good at so many different types of shots that he wouldn't have even tried as a rookie. Maxey is a threat on relocations, fadeaway jumpers, stepback hesitation moves, he's got it all within his bag. And he's certainly willing to use every trick that he's got.

This team doesn't need him to focus on anything aside from getting buckets. And when he got rolling on Monday night, there was no way to stop him. 

The Bad

• In many ways, the Game 1 victory was about everything James Harden did right. Philadelphia's sluggish start in Game 2 was due in part to Harden struggling, often for reasons that were completely within his control.

After a postgame officiating sermon from Jacque Vaughn on Saturday, you had to know there were going to be a few calls that never came for the Sixers in the follow-up. Harden was a bit slow to adjust to that reality, as he tried to bait the officials into calls on journeys to the paint. He was hard done by a couple of calls or non-calls in the first half — he got blown up by Mikal Bridges on what looked like an obvious moving screen — but he's too smart to get this lost in the foul game.

And even when he wasn't trapped in the foul nonsense, Harden wasn't helping himself anywhere else. His off-ball defense was a disaster, leading to some breakdowns in rotations and wide-open threes for the Nets. Brooklyn showed complete awareness of his defensive issues, forcing him to sink or swim (he plunged to the bottom of the Delaware). More importantly, there were moments when it looked like he'd never dribbled a basketball before. You're going to turn the ball over against this Nets team from time to time because they're long and disruptive, and you can't compound that by throwing errant passes out of bounds or losing the ball due to a case of butterfingers.

They were fortunate he turned in this disaster effort against a team that probably would be fighting for a play-in spot over the course of 82 games together. 

• The Sixers looked like a team prepared for exactly what the Nets were going to throw at them in the first game of the series. This was a poor follow-up on that front, particularly in the area that Rivers has harped on all year — spacing. Philadelphia could not seem to find where they needed to set up around the perimeter in order to deal with the trapping Brooklyn was doing in the middle of the floor. 

One thing we talked about as part of our series preview was the value in clearing out a side for Embiid in order to let him go to work as a scorer. There's been very little work done in order to facilitate that so far. By leaving a player in the strong side corner, the Nets have been able to surround Embiid with long arms on all sides, forcing the Sixers to enter the ball almost exclusively from the middle of the floor. That in itself isn't necessarily a problem, but it has meant that the Nets have gamed it so that anyone else (and I mean literally anyone else) is going to have to beat them scoring the ball. A bit of balance would be nice.

They finally figured that out in the second half, thank goodness. 

The Ugly

• There are very few guys in the league who can say they've been able to throw down a legit poster dunk on Joel Embiid, so congrats to Cam Johnson for what may go down as the meanest out of all of them.

Unlike the John Collins dunk everyone lost their minds over in the playoffs a couple of years ago, there was nothing illegal about this. As Ian Eagle would say, that's a man's jam.

• Seth Curry somehow caught a ball laying out of bounds on the baseline and managed to get possession back for his team. Can't even be mad about that, that's just impressive.

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