The Philadelphia 76ers opened the 2019 NBA playoffs with a thud, losing 111-102 at home to the Brooklyn Nets in a game that wasn’t as close as the final margin might indicate.
Heading into Monday’s Game 2, they’re teetering on the brink of full-scale disaster if they can’t adjust and even the series at one game apiece.
The Nets blew Game 1 open with an 20-1 run beginning late in the first quarter, bombing away from deep as the Sixers fell apart on offense. While Jimmy Butler almost single-handedly kept Philly within arms’ reach by scoring a playoff career-high 36 points on 11-of-22 shooting, he couldn’t spare his teammates from drowning in a cacophony of boos from the home crowd.
With All-Star center Joel Embiid hobbled by a balky left knee—which may be a long-term concern—the Sixers were no match on either end for the upstart Nets. Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris combined for 18 points on 8-of-23 shooting, which is an automatic death knell for a Sixers team with perhaps the least bench depth of any playoff squad.
How can Brett Brown and the Sixers get back on track Monday night? The following adjustments might be the difference between heading to Brooklyn with a 2-0 deficit or saving a 1-1 split.
Alter their Pick-and-Roll Defense
Prior to the Sixers’ final regular-season meeting against the Nets, Brown acknowledged the matchup problems Brooklyn presented for his squad:
“They have a bunch of players who can play out of a live ball or a pick-and-roll. And where do I assess where we are weak, where do I need the most help? It’s the pick-and-roll defense. They have capable scorers all over the place. And the abundance and frequency and efficiency of the 3-point shot they are able to generate to get buckets quick is scary.
“The matchup scares you. It’s not something where you feel like we match up with these guys great. We don’t. So we would have our hands full.”
Those fears proved prescient in Game 1.
As this video from Jared Dubin demonstrates, the Sixers had no answer for D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie for much of the game:
Last Night, In Basketball (4-13-19) #LNIB
D'Angelo Russell pull-ups. Spencer Dinwiddie rim-attacks. Caris LeVert rejecting the screen. How the Nets' guards destroyed the Sixers in pick-and-rolls and stole Game 1 on the road. pic.twitter.com/71ehn4f9Gl
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) April 14, 2019
The Sixers maintained their regular-season strategy against the Nets in Game 1, conceding mid-range jump shots off pick-and-rolls and often switching wing defenders interchangeably. Brooklyn repeatedly hunted J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris on those mismatches, as neither did a good enough job fighting through screens to harass shooters.
If the Sixers continue to switch, a gimpy Embiid and slow-footed Boban Marjanovic likely won’t be able to close out effectively on shooters, but rookie big man Jonah Bolden might. Otherwise, Philly may need to tweak its defensive strategy and have its wings stay glued to their respective men rather than switch.
Exploit Their Frontcourt Advantage
The Sixers declared Embiid doubtful for Game 1 on Friday, but he ended up being on the right side of a game-time decision. While he finished with 22 points (on 5-of-15 shooting,) 15 rebounds and five blocks in only 24 minutes, the two-time All-Star wasn’t his usual dominant self throughout the game.
“I’ll point exclusively to fatigue,” Brown said about his star center. “It’s a lot easier running 3-point line to 3-point line than it is rim to rim. … We tried to play him in five-minute clumps and maximize that, but even that got the better of him from a pace standpoint.”
During a radio appearance Friday on WFAN, Nets forward Jared Dudley said that was the Nets’ strategy.
“Keep it a fast-paced, high-intensity game where he’s having to go out there, guard the pick-and-roll, have to post up and hopefully wear him down,” Dudley said. “We’re expecting this to be a long series. Because of that, you want him, by Game 5, Game 6 to be worn out by the pace and physicality that we bring throughout the course of 48 minutes throughout the series.”
Embiid started off hot, drawing two quick shooting fouls on Nets center Jarrett Allen during the Sixers’ first two possessions, but five of his final six first-quarter shots came from 19 feet or beyond (including three 3-pointers). All but one of his five made buckets on the day came within 10 feet of the hoop, while he missed all seven of his attempts from 13 feet or further.
Between Embiid, Marjanovic and Bolden, the Sixers have a clear size advantage over the Nets, but they failed to exploit that through much of Game 1. Ed Davis came off the bench to replace Allen and was a game-high plus-28, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting and 16 rebounds in 25 minutes. The Nets tinkered with small-ball lineups at times, too.
The Sixers outrebounded the Nets, 50-45, but they cannot allow Brooklyn to dictate the terms of this series with guard-heavy lineups. When the Nets go small, the Sixers must pound the ball down low and punish smaller defenders until they get played off the floor, particularly if their 3-point shooters remain ice cold.
If the Sixers fail to exploit their size advantage, the Nets will make quick work of them in the speed game.
Ben Simmons at the 5?
While Redick and Harris were also mostly no-shows in Game 1, Simmons’ lethargic performance drew the most ire.
With Embiid limited, the Sixers needed Simmons to be aggressive from the jump, forcing turnovers and creating transition opportunities. Instead, Philly finished with only four fast-break points on the night, the third-fewest of any playoff team in Game 1.
Much like the Boston Celtics in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Nets have zero respect for Simmons’ offensive game beyond the paint.
“We will leave him wide open until he proves in this league that he can make it,” Dudley said on WFAN. “Right now, he’s not even attempting it. So we know that he’s not going to be able to do that for the most part. So what he’s going to try to do is post up, get downhill. That’s where he’s been at his best. So we have to limit that…”
Simmons attempted only nine shots in Game 1, three of which came in the final six minutes of the game.
“I think I could be more aggressive,” Simmons told reporters Sunday. “I got [Jared] Dudley and the other kid guarding me, so I got to be more aggressive attacking them.”
When the Nets downsize, the Sixers could try sticking Simmons at the 5 to get him more involved offensively. Surrounding him with four shooters—perhaps Redick, Butler, Harris and Mike Scott—would allow him to operate as a passing hub either at the elbows or in the post. He can’t be afraid to take open mid-range jumpers if the Nets concede those, either.
Simmons was uncharacteristically lackadaisical on defense, too, but Game 1 was likely a wake-up call for him. A more spirited effort from him on both ends of the floor Monday could go a long way toward helping the Sixers even the series.
The Supporting Cast
Depth has been one of the Sixers’ biggest Achilles’ heels since the trade deadline.
Scott is a typically reliable reserve, despite his 1-of-8 outing in Game 1. Marjanovic can be useful in the right matchups and showed a few flashes in Game 1. Backup point guard T.J. McConnell can frustrate opposing guards with his pesky defense, although Russell, Dinwiddie and LeVert all have a significant size advantage against him.
Good luck finding a dependable wing reserve on this roster, though.
James Ennis is nursing the quadriceps injury he aggravated late in the regular season (although he’s been upgraded to doubtful for Game 2). Brown turned to Jonathon Simmons as his first wing off the bench, but he finished as a minus-16 despite playing only 11 minutes. Zhaire Smith, who missed all but six regular-season games because of a foot fracture and a severe allergic reaction, played only one minute of garbage-time action. Furkan Korkmaz, who returned at the end of the season after he suffered a meniscus tear in mid-February, didn’t get off the bench.
Ennis triumphed in the so-called “Quiet Tournament” between him, Simmons and Korkmaz during the regular season, but until he returns, Smith may be the best of Brown’s unpalatable options. No championship contender should have to rely on an unseasoned rookie to play critical playoff minutes, but the Sixers’ top-heavy roster balance gives them no choice.
Brown should see whether Smith can fill the Sixers’ point-of-attack defensive void, even if he’s bound to whiff on some rotations due to unfamiliarity with his teammates. He isn’t a dependable 3-point shooter, but his activity as a slasher and cutter could help generate some easy buckets, particularly on offensive rebounds.
It’s hard to imagine him being worse than Jonathon Simmons in Game 1, anyway.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.