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April 16, 2019

Five Star Review: Sixers' 51-point quarter sparked by defense in Game 2

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Everybody likes awards. Five Star Review is our way of catering to that, spotlighting key sequences and performances, in-game oddities, puzzling quotes, and everything in between from each Sixers game. This space offers a chance to reflect further on observations from the night before using video, quotes, and good old-fashioned logic.

You should all know how a five-star scale works: a five-star performance is the best of the best, a one-star performance is the worst of the worst. Mistakes take precedent in defeat, excellence takes precedent in a victory. You get the picture and are encouraged to submit your own set of stars in the comment section below.

Today's game: Philadelphia's important Game 2 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. 

51 freaking points in a quarter

You are not going to see more dominant quarters than the one the Sixers put together in the third period on Monday night. A game that was close at halftime turned into a laugher, and it went that way because the Sixers just imposed their will on Brooklyn.

The talent of this group has not been in question for some time, but there have been a lot of questions about their ability to come together when it matters and their effort that seems to come and go. But when they have all five guys on the floor competing hard and communicating well, they're still as dangerous as anybody in the league.

Brett Brown lit into his team at halftime after some poor defense in the second quarter, and they certainly seemed to get the message.

"He came in here and said a few cuss words, shocked me a little bit to tell you the truth," Jimmy Butler said in the locker room after the game. "But I liked it. That's the type of energy I love, just make sure everybody did their job, letting them know we can't have it, it's not winning basketball...I love the shit, I love it when people get cussed out, yelled at, so you know you can't do [that] and it's your fault."

Right on down the line, the Sixers raised their defensive intensity. Tobias Harris, embarrassed on defense for a good chunk of the first 1.5 games, came up with an emphatic block early in the half. Ben Simmons absolutely bullied D'Angelo Russell, who put up zero points after halftime. And the play of the game for me is one that did not end in a highlight, but it symbolized the team's fight:

With Embiid on a bum leg, he could have easily justified stopping short there and living to fight another day. But that little bit of extra effort to save the ball led to a clear-path foul on Harris — who knocked down both free throws — and an extra possession afterward that ended with a made shot for Embiid.

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said before the game that Brooklyn expected a "haymaker" from the Sixers in Game 2 after a disappointing Game 1. What they got instead was a flurry of power punches, and by the time the third quarter had ended, Brooklyn wilted in the middle of the ring, mumbling, "No mas."

Ben Simmons responding after a bad Game 1

You don't need me to explain how much it meant for Philadelphia to get an aggressive Ben Simmons in Game 2. Just let Joel Embiid tell you what the team feels when Simmons comes out and plays the way he's capable of.

"He's the point guard, you know, when you see your teammate play with that type of energy, it picks you up, it lifts you up, and it makes you want to play the same way. I thought tonight he was fantastic, and that's the energy we need for the rest of the series and the playoffs."

I have plenty of other thoughts about that response from Simmons, which you can read here if you please.

James Ennis returning to the lineup

There is ultimately an entire starting lineup's worth of players that is more important than Ennis to Philadelphia's title hopes. But the return of Philly's backup wing on Monday night was a huge lift for the Sixers, and he will be essential if the team hopes to do any sort of damage in the playoffs.

It is almost beyond belief how much better he is than Jonathon Simmons at being a role player. That label can be a pejorative term at times, but having guys who understand their place within a team structure is essential to playing winning basketball. Everyone can't be a hero — you need the people who are willing to do the dirty work to win, players who will simply be where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there.

That's Ennis. He knows the shot opportunities are not going to be there in abundance for him, but that doesn't prompt him to force up shots when he does get on the court. He doesn't even get the assist on this play, but it's his decision-making that leads to a great look for Mike Scott from deep:

There is value in simply making the right decision on a consistent basis. You don't see a lot of plays where Ennis goes barreling into traffic or makes an ill-advised pass. He makes the easy read and trusts his more talented teammates to make plays from there.

If the Sixers had another role player or two like Ennis, they would be in tremendous shape right now. For now, they'll have to get by with what they have. Ennis was a +14 in 12 minutes, and you felt it.

Adjustments to the rotation

I don't want to heap too much praise on Brown for making the switch that seemed obvious heading into the playoffs. But removing T.J. McConnell from the rotation in favor of Butler playing backup point guard was important, and Brown was quicker to alter his rotation than he has been in the past, at the very least.

The decision did not come without some reservation from the coach. McConnell is a pretty popular player in the locker room and with the fans, and with McConnell serving as the team's token "energy guy," you could argue a team that came out lifeless in Game 1 could have used him in the next game.

"T.J. has been part of our bloodline for a while. The energy he injects is contagious and we all get it," Brown said after the game. "[But] you start looking at the ripple effect of maybe what can others do from a spatial standpoint. James is able to stretch the floor a little bit more. You try to give Jimmy the ball as a legitimate point guard, a point guard when Ben was not on the court. That influenced the decision."

The spacing allowed Philadelphia to survive when the Nets tried to throw screwballs at them throughout the game, including a decent-sized use of zone in the middle periods of the game. McConnell may have a role to play at some point, but this is the group we should see moving forward.

Seeing Joel Embiid go down early in the fourth quarter

For all the Sixers and Brown did right, there was one glaring mistake from the coach in Game 2. With the game clearly in hand and Embiid nursing a problematic knee, Brown sent the big man out there for the fourth quarter.

The decision nearly ended in disaster for Philadelphia. Embiid had his ankle stepped on in the first minute of the quarter, and when he went down he let out a yelp of pain before springing to his feet. The coach had seen enough, and at the next stoppage, Brown took Embiid out of the game for good.

I know the Sixers have been poor at holding leads for most of the last two seasons, but this was just inexcusable. Get the big man off of the floor with the game out of reach, no ifs, ands, or buts.

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