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April 18, 2023

Joel Embiid's growth has been on display in Games 1 and 2 vs. Brooklyn

No matter how confident you are in a player or a team after an 82-game regular season, the NBA playoffs have a habit of testing your beliefs. You can think Joel Embiid is the MVP, think he has evolved as a player, and say you trust him to make the right plays when it counts, but seeing it when it counts is what matters. This is a guy with an inconsistent track record when it matters, with 0-for-12 halves and tunnel vision and struggles against top defenders all on the resume.

Brooklyn has asked a simple question of him to open their first-round series — are you willing to trust your teammates and make the right plays vs. doubles? The answer has been a resounding yes, which his head coach and teammates have been thrilled to see out of the big man.

"I'm really proud of Jo. You look at his numbers, those are dominating numbers," Rivers said. "But he let it, especially in the second half, he just let the game come to him. It's the happiest I've ever seen him since I've been here with other guys making shots. He was really celebrating his teammates tonight because of what they were trying to do to him. I think that's a great statement."

"The biggest thing is that Joel is trusting," Tyrese Maxey added. "I keep telling him, keep trusting and keep believing and guys are going to hit shots. I feel like we got guys in the right spots."

After a first half that could best be described as uninspiring, the Sixers came out of halftime and almost immediately inspired a Rivers timeout. The head coach told reporters after the game that he was upset that they took their halftime talk and basically threw it out the window, not running the play they were supposed to on a poor first possession.

Rivers was right to be angry because the path to creating good shots against the Nets could not have been more obvious. With Brooklyn trapping Embiid in the middle of the floor, double and triple-teaming him at times, the simple act of getting the ball in his hands there was enough to create open shots elsewhere. Embiid being credited for seven assists undersells how valuable his floor distortion was, with the Sixers creating open looks seemingly at will in the second half.

This shot from the broadcast is a perfect encapsulation of the second half. To double-team Embiid in the middle of the floor, the Sixers had to leave Maxey by himself in the corner on a night where the young guard lit Brooklyn up from deep. A simple pass fake from Embiid draws Mikal Bridges across the lane toward Maxey, leaving Cam Johnson to defend P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris on the strong side. Johnson's wild closeout inspired a kick entry from Tucker, and all that was left for Harris to do was dunk the ball.

There are subtle tactical changes here. Philadelphia sliding Tobias Harris into the dunker spot more is a move that has become increasingly common as of late, and while Harris laughed about trying to hide the full plan from the public, he seemed aware that the logic behind the move is obvious. 

"They want me down there to be able to finish, but also I think I got one where I kicked it out to Tyrese as well," Harris said Monday. "I'm not going to give out the whole gameplan, but it is to be versatile in that spot, to create space, that's the biggest thing. To see where the defense is coming from and how we can get an open look from three or an open layup for that."

But the critical component that was missing for the first 25 minutes or so of the game was, as Rivers noted, actually running the offense. Through the first two games of the series, Brooklyn has not dressed up or disguised what they want to do, leaving the Sixers with a simple task in front of them. 

"They're giving you the answers with their traps. Trust your stuff, trust your spacing, move the ball and the right guys are going to end up with the ball," Rivers said after the game. "And if we do it enough, eventually Jo, you're going to get one-on-ones, and then you're going to dominate the game."

That was exactly what happened in Game 2. Though they still didn't shoot particularly well (7-for-19 from deep in the second half), the Sixers stretched out Brooklyn's defense in a way that seemed to take a toll on both ends. A strong shooting start for guys like Cam Johnson faded into the South Philadelphia night, as the wear-and-tear from trapping and rotating and closing became apparent. Eventually, the Nets decided they'd be happy to live with some single coverage on Embiid, who predictably put Nic Claxton through the basket and later carved up Royce O'Neale (bless his heart) in single coverage.

Embiid has long insisted that if he wanted to be or if the game allowed him to be, he could put up gaudy assist numbers and be their playmaking hub. Reality hasn't always matched up with the claim, but this series has been as good of a test as any. When Embiid has given himself up for the team and focused on other ways to impact the game — rim protection, rebounding, and running the floor — the Sixers have had their best spurts of the series. 

As much as I'm sure he wants to punctuate an MVP season with more dominant scoring in the playoffs, that is not what the game has been giving him. 

"A lot of people think I just love scoring the basketball, which I don't think it's true," Embiid said Monday. "I enjoy winning and doing whatever it takes to win, some nights I might shoot a lot and score a lot. Some nights I'm gonna get double-teamed and have to make the passes, but I believe in playing the right way, which is getting teammates involved. Double [and] triple teams, making sure everybody touches the ball, sees the ball, that's what I believe in. It's fun playing that way."

"It's almost like scoring the ball when you just made two or three shots in a row, I think it's the same as passing the ball. You just passed the ball, guys just made two or three shots in a row, that's exciting...sometimes, you got to score a lot, and sometimes you got to pass and trust that everybody's going to make shots. At the end of the day it's whatever it takes to win. I turned the ball over a lot, which I'm going to correct."

(His eight turnovers, by the way, are a bit misleading, as two came with Philadelphia running down the clock in the final 30 seconds, and a third came on a kicked ball violation with the shot clock expiring on a failed Tyrese Maxey drive.)

That mentality has been the top reason Philadelphia has raced out to a 2-0 lead over Brooklyn, even as they've had to overcome hot Nets shooting in Game 1 and a disastrous James Harden outing in Game 2. Brooklyn has been unable to mute the big man's impact, and the Sixers hope that will be the case for a few more matchups after this one.

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