So, uh, yeah, that was ugly. Saturday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals saw the Brooklyn Nets embarrass the Philadelphia 76ers, 111-102, inside the Wells Fargo Center. Pesky underdogs have caught plenty of home favorites off guard in Game 1 throughout postseason history, but there’s no other way to characterize Saturday as anything other than a massive letdown. That being said, the playoffs remain a best-of-seven format and the Sixers are still the favorites to move on. But for a team with eyes on the NBA Finals, it’ll need to be much better in Game 2.
Here are a few alterations that could help the Sixers even the series at 1-1.
Posting up Ben Simmons
The second-year star was anything but that on Saturday. He loafed around defensively too often, didn’t assert himself as a scorer (the opportunities were there), surrendered some boneheaded turnovers, and capped it off with a 1-of-5 showing at the free throw line.
Despite many of the struggles being self-imposed, some of it seems to be a schematic issue or a flaw in the game plan. Simmons developed a more diverse post and face-up game this season and proved capable of exposing undersized guards or wings. Brooklyn is full of those — D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris come to mind — but Simmons only tallied one post-up possession on Saturday, per Synergy.
Forcing switches and feeding him down low didn’t appear to be an emphasis, but it should be. If Simmons isn’t creating his own rhythm, it’s on the coaching staff to help manufacture some with their play calling. When push comes to shove, Simmons needs to light his own internal fire, but it can’t fall squarely on his shoulders. Combating this issue is the fact the Sixers lacked an offensive identity when Joel Embiid wasn’t drawing fouls or Jimmy Butler wasn’t dissecting the Nets with high pick-and-rolls. Tapping into Simmons’ post game, both as a scorer and facilitator, helps stabilize the non-Embiid/Butler possessions, while potentially revitalizing the team’s primary ball-handler. Simmons has to be better and while improvement stems from within, the Sixers must cater to his strengths to aid that growth.
Giving Brooklyn a taste of its own medicine
Tobias Harris and JJ Redick didn’t enjoy productive 2018-19 playoff debuts, combining for just nine points on 4-of-14 shooting. They missed some makeable shots, but the Nets stymied their off-ball rhythm by employing top-lock defense (standing between the man and the ball to slow pindowns or deny dribble handoffs) against the sharpshooters.
Here’s what it looks like:
Top-locking invites backdoor cuts and neither Redick nor Harris are dynamic finishers around the rim. Plus, both tend to shy away from contact and don’t produce high free throw rates, so it’s a viable strategy from Brooklyn. Anyhow, it’s an approach the Sixers should take with Joe Harris, who efficiently torched them for 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting and sprung free off the ball with regularity in Game 1.
More often than not, Joe Harris left his defender in the dust as Sixers defenders opened plays trailing him and lost more ground battling around screens. Harris is a heady cutter, but increasing that volume with top-locking would place added pressure on Brooklyn’s ball-handlers to find him. The Sixers should bet on those passes failing rather than Harris clanking open jumpers. Given the fact Harris only converted 60.4 percent of shots at the rim this season (51st percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass), daring him to score over Embiid or Boban (who seems to be Brett Brown’s preferred backup center this series) isn’t the worst approach.
If Redick proves too small to properly top-lock Harris, I’d let Butler — a brawny, physical defender — get another crack at him. Butler guarded Harris for 17 possessions on Saturday, but registered 20 possessions against DeMarre Carroll (his most against any Nets player), which seems like a poor allocation of Butler’s capabilities.
Altering the rotation
For the majority of the season, I’ve been a staunch defender of Brett Brown. He’s handled incessant roster turnover fairly well, has shown flexibility with his schemes, and appears well-liked by his players. But I can’t defend his showing on Saturday. It was poor. His team was unprepared. Now, I’m not suddenly advocating to fire him, but something needs to change and it begins with his rotations.
Jonathon Simmons cannot be in the rotation. He just can’t be. He’s erratic defensively, sloppy as a ball-handler and can’t hit 3s (26.9 percent this season). Zhaire Smith, meanwhile, has shown early success and willingness as a shooter (6-of-16, 5.2 attempts per 36 minutes), and flashed tantalizing on-ball defense with an ability to seamlessly wiggle over screens. And, he pairs a explosive first step with sharp instincts as a cutter.
It’s understandable to be hesitant about thrusting a rookie with scant NBA experience — let alone one who went through what Smith encountered this season — into the playoff rotation. But in his brief run, he already looks to be better and adds a higher upside than Simmons. Smith should absorb Simmons’ minutes off the bench for as long as James Ennis is shelved. Once Ennis returns, another conversation can be had.
Another tweak: remove T.J. McConnell from the rotation entirely. Butler is better as the backup point guard and McConnell’s lack of floor-spacing when playing off the ball repeatedly stalls possessions. His over-dribbling, incessant craving/searching for the perfect mid-range jumper, and timidness as an outside shooter bury the offense. He’s just not worth it. There isn’t an upside to playing him meaningful minutes.
Here’s how I’d divide the rotation for the rest of this round:
Some notes: for all of Simmons’ flaws, durability and conditioning are not among them. He’s young and hardly ever shows signs of fatigue. Play him a ton, especially considering the state of the bench. Play Butler a ton, too. Give him all the run at lead guard behind Simmons. This is why he was acquired: to deliver in the playoffs and do so logging heavy minutes.
Some have been clamored for Jonah Bolden to play more and while I’m not opposed to it, Boban is also a fine option against Brooklyn, which doesn’t have the stretch 5 to truly exploit him. His offensive contributions on Saturday were valuable, too. The Nets’ dearth of size sans-Jarrett Allen is ideal for Boban. If Ennis returns before the series ends, I’d trim down Butler’s, Harris’ and Smith’s minutes a bit. Both Smith and Ennis can see time (preferably not together, though). Both are better than McConnell and J. Simmons.
There are probably quite a few flaws with my suggested minutes dispersion and that’s OK. But nonetheless, that’s how I’d do it. The Sixers are short on solid bench contributors and yet, there remain avenues to keeping McConnell and J. Simmons off the floor. That’s no disrespect to them, they just haven’t earned it, in my eyes. We’ll see later today how all of this shakes out. I’ll look like a genius, an idiot or somewhere in-between. My bet is on the last option.