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April 15, 2021

What we learned (and didn't learn) in Sixers' season series vs. Brooklyn

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Joel-Embiid-Sixers-Nets_041521_usat Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid shoots the ball while being fouled during the third quarter against the Brooklyn Nets.

Following Philadelphia's win over the Nets to clinch the season series tiebreaker, Doc Rivers was asked whether he'd been in a position like the one he finds himself in against Brooklyn. The Sixers met the superteam to the north three times this season without a single chance to face their best group, ostensibly learning nothing about how a matchup will look come playoff time. Noting that it had to have happened at least once in the past, the head coach shrugged off the concern and said the mystery is overblown in the first place.

"I was telling someone before the game, we knew exactly who they are and we know they know who we are. There's no secrets. And so whether they all played tonight and we won, or they didn't all play and we won, it didn't matter," Rivers said postgame. "When the playoffs start, it's a whole new beast. We'll be ready for them and I'm sure they'll be ready for us."

Be that as it may, gleaning nothing from those three games would take a lack of imagination and critical thinking. So using the third game as a window into the season series, let's take a look at some good, some bad, and some unknown now that it's wrapped up.

The known

Spoiler: Joel Embiid is going to be tough for Brooklyn to stop

Embiid and most of the rest of the Sixers played a clunker in their first meeting with the Nets this season. His final season line against Brooklyn is preposterous anyway: 30.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game on 46/40/86.7 shooting splits across three meetings. They have had no answers for the big man, and the players who sat out Wednesday's meeting against Brooklyn aren't going to change that fact.

Brooklyn tried a lot of different strategies throughout the night, landing on one that worked, which we will get to later. But for the most part, Embiid was able to counter whatever they did. Against sagging coverage, he punished the Nets with made threes. In the post, Embiid has manhandled Nets centers within this season but also historically, with his exploits against DeAndre Jordan well-documented over time. 

No need to overanalyze this point further. Big dog is going to eat.

(An underrated subplot that should hearten Sixers fans: Tobias Harris has emerged as a capable No. 2 in this matchup specifically. While he sat out of crunch time last night nursing a knee issue, Harris forced switches almost whenever he wanted against the Nets and should be able to find weak links even as their rotation shortens between now and the playoffs. I don't doubt the Sixers can put up points against these Nets.)

Philadelphia needs to tighten up their transition defense 

If there was a postgame theme for Philadelphia on Wednesday night, it was disgust over how many baskets they let Brooklyn score by outrunning them down the floor. Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Doc Rivers all made mention of their issues covering teams on the break, with the Nets game still fresh on their minds.

There's good reason for that. Philadelphia's issues on the break have persisted all season, with the Sixers ranking 29th in opponent fastbreak points on the year, only barely ahead of the lowly Houston Rockets. Rivers, ever the politician, took a brief moment to spin that into a compliment of their halfcourt defense, which a former protege praised following the win on Wednesday.

"I don't know if I've ever seen anyone second or third in defense and 29th and 30th all year in transition D," Rivers noted. "The two don't actually go together. It's funny, [Nets center DeAndre Jordan] even mentioned, "Man, you guys' halfcourt defense is amazing. We've got to score quick.' That's what teams think, so we have to get better at it."

That's an understatement. It's not acceptable, but at least understandable to get beat down the floor from time to time after a turnover or missed shot on the offensive end. Philadelphia's transition breakdowns were of a much more detestable brand, with the Sixers getting beat down the floor almost immediately after made baskets and free throws. It was as if Jeff Green was on a personal mission to get his name mentioned in Philadelphia's next film session:

Brooklyn is a hard enough team to stop in the halfcourt without gifting them points because you let your guard down. Generally speaking, the Nets are not good at forcing turnovers, so you can limit their ability to score in transition if you stay engaged for all 48 minutes. 

The Sixers are well-positioned to take the East's No. 1 seed, and Brooklyn doesn't seem to care

By earning the season-long tiebreaker against Brooklyn, the Sixers have given themselves a great chance to own homecourt for the duration of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Based on the respective approaches, it seems the Sixers are the only team who really cares about that distinction, with Brooklyn content to play anybody, anywhere as long as they can get their group to the postseason healthy.

That approach does not come without risk. Yes, the Nets are an offensive juggernaut and will be borderline unguardable when they have their full cast available, but they will have precious few reps together as a group to figure it out on defense. They are basically banking on an Olympics-style model to bring them to the promised land, believing themselves the NBA's equivalent of "too big to fail." They might get a soft matchup in the first round of the playoffs, but there are pitfalls the rest of the way, and they will have to navigate them without the shared experience of success and failure as a group. Combine that with some combustible personalities at the top of the roster, and you have a situation that could implode quicker than some give it credit for.

But leaving Kyrie Irving on the sideline to hang with his All-Star buddies as the game got close Wednesday drove home a point that had already been made before the game tipped off. Brooklyn thinks they can turn it on when it matters against whoever is in front of them. Fair enough. It's up to the Sixers to prove them wrong.

The unknown

How the heck do the Sixers guard the big three? 

The Sixers had one player out of Brooklyn's big three to handle on Wednesday night and two different high-level defenders to throw at him. Kyrie Irving absolutely dismantled Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle anyway, dropping 37 points on 13/22 from the field while sitting out most of crunch time with the rest of the stars on the sideline.

It's not an indictment of Simmons or Thybulle as defenders to be concerned about guarding the Nets in a playoff series. Everybody should be fearful of how they'll defend Brooklyn in a seven-game series. But there's a domino effect to every decision you make when trying to configure the matchups against this Nets team.

My operating belief is that Simmons is going to take the James Harden assignment in an effort to shut down the creative engine of the Nets. That all but clinches Tobias Harris guarding Kevin Durant and (at least to start) Danny Green on Irving, save for a lineup change ahead of the playoffs. Harris can use his strength to force Durant to shoot over him in the mid-post, but that's an area Durant has lived in for most of his career. Even Philadelphia's best options against Irving (and I believe the option will be Thybulle) look like they're running second place.

If there is hope for Philadelphia, it's in the ability they've shown to avoid the switches teams like Brooklyn want to force in order to hunt worse defenders. With Irving running the show Wednesday, Brooklyn and Philadelphia engaged in a battle of who could get more favorable switches. This possession ended in a Brooklyn bucket, but it was a good example of an Irving target (Furkan Korkmaz in this example) showing effectively enough to avoid the switch and force the Nets to beat them another way.

There are nits to pick here, and even if we set aside some individual missteps, the average version of this play for Brooklyn will be much more dangerous come playoff time. A much more dangerous player than Bruce Brown will be getting the ball around the free-throw line. Still, the goal of making a much less capable playmaker beat you was accomplished here, and it's the sort of thing every guy in the rotation will have to be sharp on come May and June. 

But still, it's hard to shake how weird it is that Philly didn't get even one look at a close to full strength Nets team. This is a division opponent they typically play four times a season, and all of their games were expected to be showcase, national TV events for the league. All three ended up being duds because of how the Nets approached them. Even if that doesn't harm Philly in the playoffs, it was a huge bummer for fans of both teams and the sport.

Philadelphia's counters if the Nets ignore Ben Simmons

Embiid showed no willingness to credit Brooklyn for junking up the game in the fourth quarter. Citing the strangeness of the situation and his own team's role in the late collapse, Embiid shrugged it off as a blip.

"It was just weird, I would say. I felt like I sat too long and, you know, kind of lost my rhythm. So them fronting and trapping had nothing to do with how we play, our play," Embiid said. "We just didn't have the same physicality that we had for the first three quarters."

There's truth to all of that, but Philadelphia's ability to deal with issues stemming from their spacing is still in question. The surrounding parts have changed, but the base pairing of Embiid/Simmons will allow teams to make them uncomfortable in a playoff game.

Brooklyn's go-to strategy down the stretch was to use Nic Claxton — a legitimately useful piece, mind you — and Alize Johnson to double Embiid before the ball made it to his hands in the post. The Nets dropped Claxton back in coverage of Simmons to an almost comical degree, and Simmons kept throwing entry passes to the big guy in the post regardless of how the setup looked. Not every possession went poorly, but it clearly caught Embiid and the Sixers off guard as the lead dwindled in the fourth.

There were some suggestions after the game that Embiid owns blame for not making better reads/passes out of the post in these situations. Broadly speaking, there is some truth to that. Nobody is going to confuse him for Nikola Jokic as a passer, and though he has handled doubles far better this season at times, he is still prone to issues if teams time their help well.

Last night was not a good example of that from my view. On the possessions in the clips above, this is what Embiid saw after facing up immediately after making the catch off of Simmons' entry passes:

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The first example is a PTSD-inducing image of the Sixers' playoff past. Brooklyn is able to guard four guys with three players and hound Embiid with the ball in his hands. Any claim that Simmons has space to cut into in the second rests on the idea that Embiid should be expected to deliver a pass from that position instantly and on the money. That seems completely unreasonable, particularly because the option to swing the ball low on a face-up is even more dangerous than usual with a smaller defender.

You can bet the Sixers are going to see this again in the playoffs, and most likely see it with a much more talented group on the floor executing it. How do they respond when that happens?

There were glimpses last night, mostly centered around moving Simmons out of the perimeter initiator position. Placing Simmons near the free-throw line and using one of their shooters to enter the ball, Embiid was able to get a deep seal against Alize Johnson and should have spent more effort going up strong instead of trying to grift his way to free throws. 

For these reasons, there is still a wait-and-see approach discussing the Sixers as a contender from a lot of people around the league. They are not alone in that regard. Utah has the best record in the league and can't shake the ghosts of their own playoff past, where Rudy Gobert has been turned from a DPOY to a glorified turnstile in isolation. Skepticism persists until the very moment you prove you can get it done on the biggest stage, and Philly hasn't done so yet.

In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing them try, and I hope we get to see this matchup at some point between now and July. 


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