The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Brooklyn Nets, four games to one, in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. They will face the Toronto Raptors in the second round, with Game 1 likel tipping off Saturday.
This series went as many expected; quickly to the Sixers. But it did not start out well for the eventual winners. In Game 1 Brooklyn seemingly scored at will against a poor defensive effort from Philadelphia. D’Angelo Russell led the way with 26 points. The 111-102 final was not as close as the score indicated. The crowd, as is the Philadelphia tradition, booed the team off the court. Ben Simmons took exception to that, but it seemed to light a spark in him. After Game 1, he went on to average 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists in the final four games of the series. And he did a much better defensive job on Russell in the final four games.
To the team’s credit, they responded starting with Game 2. After a close first two quarters, coach Brett Brown reportedly ripped into the team at halftime. The normally level headed coach used a tone that surprised many, including the uber-competitive Jimmy Butler.
The spark worked; the Sixers exploded in the third quarter, out-scoring Brooklyn 51-23. The offensive explosion tied the series at one with a 145-123 win.
This game was also the point in the series where animosity between the two teams surfaced. It all began when Embiid caught Jarrett Allen with a strong elbow to the face. Embiid was given a flagrant-1 foul, and laughed at the podium while explaining himself. The Nets came to the defense of their teammate and claimed that Embiid was being disrespectful by laughing about a potentially dangerous play. They also took exception to the officiating for much of the series. Embiid could have reasonably been ejected for the elbow, and both the Nets’ owner, Joe Tsai, and general manager, Sean Marks, were fined, Marks for entering the referee’s locker room after Game 4, and Tsai for publicly supporting that action.
More tension arose from a surprising source; 12 year veteran Jared Dudley called Simmons “average in the half court” after game 2. Simmons, clearly unconcerned by the message and the messenger, shrugged off the criticisms.
For a short series, this matchup had a lot of spice. In Game 3 the Sixers were without Embiid, who sat out due to lingering knee soreness. Without him, the Sixers managed one of their best wire-to-wire games of the year. Simmons dominated with 31 points and 9 assists. Harris had 26 on 6 of 6 shooting from deep, and JJ Redick chipped in 25. It was the first time a trio of Sixers teammates had scored 25+ in a playoff game since 1978. Jared Dudley, meanwhile, went scoreless.
Dudley would make his mark in the next game, though. After a solid start (8 points, 5 assists), Dudley went after Joel Embiid for a hard foul, again on Jarrett Allen. The commotion briefly spilled into the stands.
After all was said and done, Embiid was given a Flagrant 1 foul, while Dudley and Jimmy Butler were ejected for their altercation. It was seemingly a good trade off for the Nets; Butler is far more important to his team than Dudley is. But if anything, this moment galvanized the Sixers. They went on to out-score Brooklyn 27-17 in the fourth quarter, and capped off the win with a Mike Scott three pointer with 18 seconds to play.
Embiid didn’t just stir the pot; he carried the team with arguably his best all around game as a pro: 31 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 6 blocks in 31 minutes.
Game 5 was not close. The Sixers jumped out to a 23-2 lead, with Brooklyn’s first basket coming over five minutes into the game. They lead wire-to-wire in a 122-100 close-out win.
It was ultimately an entertaining series thanks to the beef between Dudley and Simmons, but the outcome was never truly in doubt. The Game 1 scare was a much needed attention grabber for the Sixers. They can’t afford an opening letdown in a series against the Raptors, who are all too familiar with the same lessor; they also lost Game 1 of their opening series, against the Orlando Magic. The Raptors won the season series 3-1, but all of those games were before the Sixers acquired Harris. With stronger depth players and home court, the Raptors present a daunting challenge in the second round.