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April 15, 2019

Sixers' attitude shift sparks Game 2 victory over Brooklyn Nets

A resurgent Ben Simmons led the way for Philadelphia in their Game 2 victory.

The Sixers tried to tell you they were not going to make major adjustments to their gameplan following a disappointing Game 1 loss. Hell, I tried to tell you myself that a sea change was not in the cards, and that a win over the Brooklyn Nets was not going to rely on throwing the baby out with the bath water.

But Philadelphia did make some important changes on the way to a dominant 145-123 victory in Game 2, and they will need to carry those with them to Brooklyn to keep the momentum rolling as they hit the road.

It was clear that the Sixers were going to make the Nets think a little bit more at the point of attack than they needed to in the loss on Saturday. On Brooklyn's second possession of the game, the Sixers did something they haven't often done this season — they had Embiid show on Russell, which prompted a chain reaction that led to a tightly-contested three from DeMarre Carroll:

It would not be the last time the Sixers sent a different look at Russell. The overarching thought process remained the same, with their bigs most often dropping and inviting Brooklyn's guards toward mid-range shots, but there were enough wrinkles to notice in real time.

The process may have been altered, but the explanation was still mostly the same from the head coach.

"If you can get into a routine in a playoff, schematic system, and feel good about the gameplan — like do you feel good about a defensive gameplan? — and then you do different things within it, you can walk down a series," Brown said. "We feel comfortable that the house is just don't live in that. 

"You have to keep somebody that's an All-Star point guard a little off balance. Not entirely, and not gimmicky, but yes we did show him 2-3 looks from time to time. We hope that it enabled us to be less predictable [with] what we were going to do."

But the biggest changes in Philadelphia were not scheme related. The Sixers simply played like a different team from the opening whistle. Led by Ben Simmons, who was a changed man after a dismal performance in Game 1, the Sixers were the aggressors throughout much of the evening, forcing Brooklyn to match them instead of the other way around.

Sixers players have often poked fun at Simmons' stoic demeanor when talking about his play over the last two seasons. The best description probably came from JJ Redick last year, when he called him "the man behind the glass," as if Simmons is tucked away in a room by himself observing everyone else around him. He's not the showman Joel Embiid is, nor does he do wacky stuff like drink liquor in the crowd a la Mike Scott.

But when the crowd responded to his early energy by screaming their heads off, Simmons leaned into it as the game moved along. He waved them on during a first-quarter run and later jacked Allen Iverson's trademark, hand-to-the-ear celebration with Philadelphia in the middle of their dominant third quarter.

"I was thinking about the boos from last game," Simmons joked when asked about the Iverson celebration. "I got a lot of love for this city and the fans here. Every time I step on the floor I try and play as hard as I can, I was just showing that. The hustle I try to give each and every game is not only for my teammates, my family, it's for the city."

Is that pandering from Simmons, who knew he had to win back the crowd after his booing comments on Saturday? Absolutely. The important thing is that it came attached to a style of play that showed he is not going to let himself be completely taken out of this series.

Moments like that effort play above fueled Philadelphia's monster third quarter, a rollicking 51-point effort that put the game out of reach and allowed the Sixers to rest their starters for the majority of the fourth quarter. It was one of the first times in a while where Philadelphia's high-end talent reminded you that when they're at full tilt, they are capable of putting a hurting on an opponent.

"They picked up their intensity defensively. I thought they did a fantastic job," Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said after the game. "They got into us, I would classify it as extreme physicality. Denied us, held us, pushed us."

Again, it was Simmons who led the way here. He took the Russell assignment for most of the night, and he played a big part in Russell's struggles from the field on Monday night. Simmons was the embodiment of that Atkinson quote to open the third quarter, dogging Russell just for trying to receive a pass:

It is also a little easier to get physical with an opponent when you construct lineups that are built to play that way. The Sixers found themselves unable to do that when they went away from their starters in Game 1. So Monday featured a small but important shift with the bench group, one that could ultimately tilt the series.

With James Ennis back in the rotation, Brown felt empowered to turn to Jimmy Butler as his backup point guard on the evening. It was not Butler's finest night at the office, certainly a step back from his monster Game 1, but the mere act of benching T.J. McConnell bulked up the Sixers one through five and took a non-shooter off of the floor. When your smallest guy on the court in a bench lineup is Butler, it is a lot easier to play with a physical edge.

The Sixers didn't pull away with that lineup early in the game, but when you ask teams to meet a certain level of physicality for 48 minutes, eventually they will begin to wilt. All the Sixers really need to do is buy time for their starting group anyway — the Sixers have outscored the Nets by 31 points with their starting five on the floor.

Even the coach showed more fire than we're used to seeing (or at least hearing about) from him. Sixers players relayed that Brown was livid at halftime, with the Sixers clinging to a one-point lead through 24 minutes. Brown brought the fire and brimstone, and if the 51-point quarter was any proof, it worked.

"I think he's supposed to do that, and he gave us that energy showing what we need to do," Boban Marjanovic said in the locker room after the game. "We know what we needed to get that win."

All of these things added up to a very successful night at the office for the Sixers. They will not be satisfied to go to Brooklyn tied 1-1 after coughing up homecourt advantage, but they will leave knowing their overarching plan can still be counted on.

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