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April 23, 2019

Sixers' maturity closing out Brooklyn Nets will be key against Toronto in round two

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Tuesday night's blowout victory over the Brooklyn Nets was still in progress when people in South Philly started focusing on the Sixers' upcoming series against the Toronto Raptors. That included everyone from the players right on through the game ops crew at Wells Fargo Center — late in the second quarter, the Sixers were playing the raptor-feeding scene from the original Jurassic Park on the jumbotron, dismissing the Nets before they could get off of the floor.

Who could blame them? The Sixers ran the Nets out of the building on Tuesday night, never allowing Brooklyn to get a foothold on the game. They pushed their lead to 14-0 before the Nets scored a point on Tuesday, and they never really stopped from there. The Nets simply wilted.

"I never felt like we [got momentum], maybe it's the only game of the season where we never made a push back," Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said after the game. "I think we got down early, it wasn't going our way, and we just never made our second to the Sixers, heck of a job, they really showed how powerful of a team they are tonight."

In the end, the talent gap between the Nets and the Sixers became obvious. D'Angelo Russell is a young and talented guard, but Ben Simmons basically eliminated him from the series. Joel Embiid absolutely manhandled the Nets on the interior at both ends, never giving them a chance to stop and catch their breath.

The most important thing we saw from Philadelphia in this series was a sense of urgency and some fight. Game 1 was a microcosm of their worst habits all season, and when combined with questionable choices in the rotation it allowed the Nets to build a head of steam. But the Sixers, from the coaching staff through the players, responded with swift adjustments and a change in attitude that powered them to a fairly easy 4-1 series win.

A younger, less urgent Sixers team might have eased off in the second half, allowing the Nets to climb back in the game and force the starters to play more minutes. But the starting group took the oxygen out of the game, punishing Brooklyn to start the third to buy themselves extended towel-waving time.

"I really was as happy with the first two minutes of the third as I was with the start of the game," Brett Brown said after the win. "I thought we came out and tried to continue what we tried to achieve defensively."

The presence of Embiid certainly made things easier, on Tuesday and throughout the series. The Sixers won a game without him in Brooklyn, but he was a behemoth in the games he suited up for, and he looked his healthiest in the final game of the series. His numbers against Brooklyn were outstanding: 24.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.8 blocks per game in less than 25 minutes per game.

Embiid's troublesome knee is the key to extending the season for Philly. You wouldn't have known it was a problem as he flew around in Game 5, crashing to the floor a few too many times in classic Embiid fashion.

"I didn't finish up the regular season, so it's just getting my rhythm and getting healthier. Just doing the right things I think is working out well," Embiid said. "As long as I'm allowed, I'm going to keep pushing." 

They will need him to push and push hard to have any chance against Toronto. 

The Raptors represent a much stiffer challenge than the Nets. Their big deadline acquisition, Marc Gasol, is a big man who has given Embiid trouble at times over his first few years. The Sixers have gone to great lengths to matchup proof their starting group, but their Plan A will always be to play through the big man. Their plus-minus king has basically played Toronto to a standstill during his minutes over the last few years, and a standstill will not be enough to beat a deeper Raptors team.

The Raptors have dominated Philly dating back before many of their players were even in the league, with Philadelphia's last win in Toronto coming in November 2012. Lavoy Allen was a starter for the Sixers that night, to give you an idea of how long it has been since they have had success of any kind in Canada.

"We understand what the math says with our success in Toronto and it's not flattering, but it's also not directed to the team that we have. You can credit or you can discredit it, I am discrediting it," Brett Brown said after Tuesday's victory. "We are excited to go up there and try to fix some of the lack of success we have had."

As we'll discuss in greater detail before Game 1 of the Toronto series, Brown is right about the change Philadelphia has undergone. They did not have Tobias Harris for any of their matchups with Toronto this year, and institutional history doesn't mean a whole lot when the core of your team has only taken shape over the last two seasons.

Regardless of the opponent, Embiid made clear after Game 5 against Brooklyn that the team's mental focus has changed dramatically from last year. The taste of the Celtics series has lingered since last May, and Embiid insisted it taught them important lessons about the day-to-day habits necessary to win in the playoffs.

"We feel pretty good about what we can do, there's definitely a difference from last year," Embiid said. "We had great momentum going into the playoffs, and Boston just smacked us...we were kind of, I would say overconfident about what we could have done. But this year, it's just about respecting everything about the game of basketball, and just putting the work in."

"We think we can win it all. Obviously, it's going to take a lot, we've got some great teams in the league and we're about to play one of them...we just got to take it one game at a time, but we understand we got all the talent we need."

Coming into the playoffs, we knew the Sixers had the top-end talent of a title team. It was everywhere else that appeared problematic — their lack of chemistry, their flawed bench, and their search for identity at a time when you can't afford to have any mystery left.

It took a butt whooping in Game 1 for the Sixers to get right, but in the end, they proved they are a threat to be taken seriously. They will be underdogs in their series with Toronto, and rightfully so. But they showed a maturity closing out this series that had not been apparent coming in, which people should not discount moving forward.

They will need everything they showed in this Brooklyn series — talent, maturity, and a little chutzpah — to beat a Raptors team with homecourt advantage. Easier said than done, but hey, they've proven they can win a playoff game with Greg Monroe starting. Maybe anything is possible.

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