April 18, 2019
BROOKLYN — Losing your franchise player minutes before a playoff game starts is never ideal, no matter how great the supporting cast around him is. The Sixers appeared particularly unprepared for the development, because they only dressed 12 players for Thursday's game in Brooklyn, with both Zhaire Smith and Amir Johnson listed as healthy inactives in spite of Embiid's absence.
But Embiid sitting out forced the Sixers to find a way to win on the road without him, and the team may end up being better for it when all is said and done.
Ben Simmons earned most of the headlines following the game, and he deserved them after eviscerating the Nets in the wake of some trash talk from Brooklyn's Jared Dudley. But Philadelphia's three-man podium of Simmons, Tobias Harris, and JJ Redick after the game was a symbol of the night that was, a group effort that buried the Nets on their home floor.
The borough of Brooklyn made their feelings for Simmons known before the game even got going on Thursday. Some rogue citizens put up "MISSING" posters around the Barclay's Center, poking fun at Simmons' jumper and his relationship with Kendall Jenner.
It was Simmons who made the Nets disappear in the end. But he wasn't all that interested in addressing the back-and-forth with Dudley after the game, choosing instead to focus his energy on the battles Philadelphia still has left to win.
"I don't really have the energy for it, man," Simmons told reporters after the game. "Honestly. It's done. People are going to say whatever they want to say, it is what it is, I just got to play."
Trying to sum up Simmons' performance by pointing to one part of his box score would be an exercise in futility. He did absolutely everything for Philadelphia. He initiated the offense, he scored as a roll man, he swarmed Brooklyn on the ball, he rotated away from it, there was absolutely nothing he could not do on Thursday night.
If there's a place you want to look first, take a gander at how D'Angelo Russell has struggled over the last two games. After killing the Sixers in Game 1, it has been tough sledding for Russell ever since, with Brooklyn's All-Star guard needing 42 shots to score 42 points in Games 2 and 3 combined.
The Sixers will live with that any day of the week because they've been able to limit his playmaking and ensure he has no chance to get other guys going. That all starts with Simmons, who has stuck to Russell like white on rice over the last two games.
The results on the other side of the ball don't need a lot of explaining. While many of us bemoan Simmons' shooting ability for obvious reasons, you forget that the Sixers can weaponize him in spite of that flaw by leaning into his physical gifts. He may be this team's point guard, but Simmons' amateur history as a power forward served him well in Game 3, with Philly turning him loose as a screen setter.
"I think we forget he's 22 years old," Brett Brown told reporters after the game. "He is incredibly confident within himself. He has put in a tremendous amount of work apart from being pretty darn good. Im just so happy for him to play the way that he played tonight especially when you zoom into the free-throw line and make free throws in the NBA playoffs."
(Oh yeah, by the way: Simmons calmly knocked down nine of his 11 free-throw attempts on the evening. His form is still far from perfect, but the confidence is coming slowly but surely.)
It was a reminder of why the team considers Simmons an untouchable foundational piece for this franchise. Simmons has his valleys and they can be ugly, but his peaks are sensational, and his durability is an underrated quality that has helped the Sixers survive sans Embiid.
If there's a player you could say actually benefitted from Embiid's absence, it may have been Harris. He certainly fits quite nicely alongside the big man, but without him on the floor, Harris got the one thing players covet most: touches.
And Harris didn't have to demand those from everybody, he took them from himself. With the team's best rebounder on the sideline, Harris took it upon himself to pick up the slack, hauling in 16 rebounds. 15 of those came on the defensive glass.
While Simmons insisted his mentality stays the same regardless of who is in or out of the lineup, Harris admitted that Embiid's absence drove him to take his game to another level.
"It added more motivation for us as a group with our best player down," Harris told reporters. "We all needed to pick it up and step it up, stick to the gameplan and be even more focused. So just for us to go out here and come out with that effort, I think the pieces that came in for Joel did a good job tonight. It was a great push out there."
Those rebounds were great on their own, but they meant a lot to Harris as a scorer on some level, too. Instead of filling a wing with Simmons running the break, Harris was able to take some of his own boards and push the pace, and we saw him go end-to-end more on Thursday night than we've seen in a little while.
Seeing Harris hit a pull-up three in transition reminded you of why the Sixers brought him here in the first place, and his coach believes the path forward will be inclusive of all their talented ballhandlers on the break.
"I think in Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris we have three elite dribble-out guys, people who can rebound the ball and go himself," Brown said. "[Harris] did that a lot tonight, some of his scoring opportunities were just carryover from a defensive rebound and off he went, and we ran with him. I like that, that is 2019 modern-day basketball."
If you were only tuning in for the playoffs, you would be forgiven if you thought it was Redick, and not Harris, who led the NBA in three-point percentage this season. Philadelphia's veteran sharpshooter has wildly outplayed Harris through three games, and he was essential as Philadelphia pulled away on Thursday night.
For a period following the All-Star break, Redick was in a slump that many people attributed to Embiid's absence. The two have noticeable chemistry on a handful of the team's pet plays, and so it was easy to fall into the trap of tying those two things together.
Redick made sure to note that while the two-man game with Embiid is great, there are plenty of ways for him to get going, and he has quite a partnership with Philadelphia's other young star.
"Ben and I have an amazing thing," Redick said. "It's very organic. We don't really call plays. We just get into stuff and talk about it in the huddle if we see something that a team is doing and we feel like we could exploit it. There were three or four plays tonight where we did that."
The ability for the players to offer their input in the huddle and let things unfold from there is something that has developed over time in Philly, according to Redick. It's a product of trust across the board, and it fueled Redick's hot stretch to open the second half.
"I think coach-player relationship is a two-way thing. You have to be willing to take suggestions as a player and vice versa. "I think we have sort of grown as a group...we set something up as players and we hit back-to-back three's off basically our reads, our set pieces."
The longer this Sixers team hangs around in these playoffs, the more they can grow those relationships. With the talent as bright as it is, that may be the key to unlocking another level for these Sixers.
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