April 23, 2019
Coming into a series with the Brooklyn Nets, one of the scary things to consider from the Sixers' perspective was how little the Nets had to lose. In many ways, they were the plucky upstart Philadelphia was last season, just a worse team. When people don't expect a young team to win, you can get away with all sorts of gimmicks and new wrinkles without fearing much scrutiny if you lose.
There's no better time for the Nets to throw curveball after curveball at the Sixers than Tuesday night in Philly. With their season on the line, Brooklyn has to do whatever it takes to keep their team alive.
The Sixers have already dealt with quite a few changes from the Nets through four games. Jared Dudley's antics aside, his minutes as a small-ball center changed the calculus of the series to some extent, though not always in Brooklyn's favor. Caris LeVert's insertion in the starting lineup helped bring the Nets closer in Game 4, even though they ultimately fell short of a victory on their home floor.
Each challenge that has popped up has been overcome by the Sixers, to their credit. All that's really left to do is to shut the door on Brooklyn and send them home for summer vacation.
They're aware that's going to be easier said than done.
"Knowing you're going to play a team that's going to play hard, they're going to play desperate, we expect them to be at their best, so we have to be at our best to close them out," JJ Redick said at practice on Monday. "Those guys believe, they believe in each other and in themselves and their system, they believe they can beat us. So playing a team like that, that still very much has life and still very much has a real competitive spirit, it's hard to beat them."
The reassuring news for Philadelphia is that they have absorbed just about everything Brooklyn has had to throw at them so far. Their bench was a trainwreck in Game 4 and they lost Jimmy Butler to a second-half ejection, and they still emerged victoriously. They watched Brooklyn's guards carve them up in Game 1, and Ben Simmons has all but eliminated D'Angelo Russell from the series in the time since.
The numbers here are staggering. Brooklyn is averaging less than a point per possession as a team on the 151 possessions where Simmons is guarding Russell, and his individual numbers have plummeted as well— Russell is shooting 38.1 percent from the field with Simmons on him and has more turnovers than assists during the series. It's even more staggering when you compare the stats from Game 1 before the Sixers changed their rotation:
Russell matchups in Game 1
|Defender||BKN pts. per 100 possessions||Russell FG%|
|Ben Simmons (23 possessions)||56.5||22.2|
|T.J. McConnell (18 possessions)||115.7||57.1|
|Jimmy Butler (6 possessions)||150||50.0|
Often times, the biggest and best adjustment you can make is simply putting the right players on the floor. By removing T.J. McConnell from the rotation, the Sixers changed the complexion of the series.
Simmons has defended Russell on 64 percent of Russell's possessions in Games 2-4, though if you believe Simmons, the real key might be stopping Russell from getting the ball in the first place.
"Just trying to keep the ball out of his hands, making it tough on him," Simmons told reporters. "Forcing him right and showing him a hand when he gets his shots up...we've got to keep the same mentality as the last few games that we've played. I think we've done a good job defensively and offensively of executing the gameplan, so we gotta stick with it."
The tape has shown over and over again that there is truth to that. This trend started in Game 2, with Simmons making Russell fight for every inch:
That being the case, it's imperative for Philadelphia to slow down Caris LeVert in Game 5. A midseason injury knocked him out of rhythm, but LeVert has reminded a lot of people that he was Brooklyn's best player early in the year before Russell took off. The Sixers have not figured out how to slow him down yet — when they've sagged, he has knocked down threes at an extremely high rate, and when they've played him close he has been able to get to the basket either to score or draw contact.
If the Sixers can avoid another midgame ejection tonight, look for Butler to help slow down LeVert in Game 5.
• Some encouraging news for Sixers fans came last night when the Sixers listed Joel Embiid as "probable" on the nightly injury report. Or at least it's positive if you take it at face value — they did list him as doubtful for Game 4, only for Embiid to suit up anyway.
Embiid has made it clear this is a problem he's going to have to deal with for the rest of the playoffs, but it's still a small victory for him to be feeling good enough to be upgraded on the injury report. Embiid's voice rings loudest in the locker room when it comes to his health, as it should, and when you combine the probable label with the hard work we saw him go through at the practice facility on Monday, it's hard to find a negative angle.
• Brett Brown did not outright say he expects the Nets to get the benefit of the whistle in Game 5, but it's something the Sixers are prepared for heading in. After GM Sean Marks bum-rushed the officials' locker room and further complaints were made by their minority owner, you have to expect the Nets to get a few dicey calls in Philly.
"There's no secret how this game tomorrow will be played, given the complaints that have surfaced in regards to refereeing and what inevitably will be sort of the reaction to the game," Brown told reporters on Monday.
The officiating shouldn't matter much in the end as long as there isn't an egregious reaction. Embiid has gone to great lengths to explain that he can't get suckered into dumb fights with lesser players, and the same must be true about arguments with officials if he doesn't get calls early. You could say the team needs to... trust the process.
• Jimmy Butler's ejection on Saturday has overshadowed an important development in this series. While he looked like an all-world player with his teammates faltering in Game 1, it is his work in the games that have followed that has been more important to Philadelphia winning.
His numbers in these playoffs have not been what some people would have expected when the idea of "Playoff Jimmy" was discussed during the season. But it's his malleability that has been his biggest asset against Brooklyn. After his big scoring outburst in Game 1, Butler made it clear that he needed to focus more on playmaking for his teammates, and his shift to backup point guard has helped him live up to that message.
The important thing here is that Butler has proven able and willing to slide into the background on offense at times without his effort dropping on defense or even on the offensive glass. It's cliche, but he has done whatever the team has needed him to do to get a victory on a given night. If the Sixers want to win a title, that is the version of Butler they need — a guy who is capable of going for 30+ when the situation demands it, but one who is just as comfortable picking up 14 points, seven assists and an assortment of huge defensive plays.
Butler's series to be more of an alpha dog will come in these playoffs, I am sure of that.
• After winning during a mediocre team performance in Game 4, Las Vegas has a lot more confidence in the Sixers to close out the series in comfortable fashion on Tuesday. Lines opened at -8 over the weekend, and they've risen to -8.5 between Saturday evening and Tuesday afternoon, with 74 percent of bets coming in on the Sixers.
I don't think I would ever touch a sizable line with the Sixers involved, because we've all seen how they can cough up leads with the best of them. That being said, Game 4 feels like a tough loss for Brooklyn to come back from. Everything broke their way for three quarters and they still couldn't climb the mountain.
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