Playing in a must-win Game 2, the Philadelphia 76ers responded with a resounding 145-123 victory on the back of a 51-point third quarter. Ben Simmons was utterly dominant, posting a 18-12-10-2 line for his second career playoff triple-double; Joel Embiid rebounded from a lackluster Game 1 for 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 10 boards; Tobias Harris turned it on late for 19 points on 12 shots. It was one of the Sixers’ better performances in recent weeks and should provide some momentum heading into today’s Game 3 showdown in Brooklyn.
Let’s dive into three observations from Game 2.
*I wanted to get this up sooner, but life gets in the way sometimes, so here it is some hours before Game 3. I hope it’s insightful nonetheless.*
Ben Simmons locking down on the perimeter
Every now and then, Simmons flashes his absurdly high defensive ceiling. The motor’s revving, his size is overwhelming, the speed is near-impossible to escape, and his man is completely neutralized. Game 1 was not one of those days. He was apathetic, spacey and generally ineffective. Game 2, however, was exactly that. Aside from a few minor gaffes, the second-year guard was absolutely superb, particularly against Nets All-Star D’Angelo Russell.
Instructed to completely shade Russell to his non-dominant right hand, Simmons did exactly that, forcing Russell away from the comfort zone of his left hand. What looked like Simmons wanting Russell to reject every screen was really just a means to deny Russell from getting to his strong side.
In the first half, Russell was relatively effective, tallying 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting. Simmons lost track of the slithery guard a few times and let him get open for mid-range jumpers or 3-pointers. But in the second half, a flip was switched from the outset. Simmons hounded Russell on the ball, stripping away his right hand, and covered him like a tarp off the ball to take Brooklyn out of its offensive rhythm.
Without the requisite shake and burst to zip away from Simmons, Russell only took — and missed — two shots after intermission and didn’t notch a single point. Beyond struggling as a scorer, Russell couldn’t create for others out of the pick-and-roll. His path to the roller was walled off by Simmons and he largely lacked the capability to whirl off-handed passes to guys on the perimeter. The results were four turnovers to just two assists in Game 2.
Russell was clearly uncomfortable going to his right, leading to slow, broken-down possessions with turnovers or contested mid-range jumpers. When a sliver of daylight on the left side opened up, Russell wasn’t quick or snappy enough to dart over and make something happen. Simmons blanketed his former high school teammate pretty much any time they matched up:
That type of defensive aggression and engagement hasn’t always been there with Simmons. On Monday, it was, and if the 6-foot-10 maestro locks in like that over the remainder of this series — continuing to pester Russell to no end — the Sixers could make short work of the Nets.
JJ Redick locking down…? JJ Redick locking down!
In Game 1, Brooklyn top-locked JJ Redick and Tobias Harris to shut them down. It worked. I already touched on that briefly here. Leading up to Monday’s Game 2, I suggested the Sixers do the same to Joe Harris, who roamed free in Game 1 for 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting. If it were to be effective, I expected Jimmy Butler to be the primary defender on Harris. Instead, Brett Brown instilled trust in Redick to do the job, and do the job Redick did.
Harris only scored four points on 1-of-4 shooting and was taken out almost entirely via Redick’s physical, top-locking defense. Oftentimes, Redick prevented Harris from getting to his desired spots on the court and threw a wrench into what the Nets wanted to do offensively.
Overwhelmingly, subdued top-lock coverage — more accurately described as face-guarding in this case — was enough to send Nets decision-makers searching elsewhere for options. Considering Redick’s struggles moving laterally, navigating screens, and defending dribble penetration, avoiding those situations was a win. But other times, Redick embraced his challenges (not necessarily the ones listed right above) and truly contained Harris off the ball, fighting to stay in front.
Here’s a small snippet of Redick’s defense. Note how each time, Brooklyn has to rely on a secondary option:
Kenny Atkinson is too smart not to game-plan for this coverage moving forward. He’ll likely have counters against it and try to exploit Redick’s shortcomings. Game 2, however, was a glimpse into what Redick can do defensively if he competes and eliminates on-ball situations.
How JJ Redick was revived offensively
If you haven’t heard already, Redick struggled in Game 1. The Nets were physical with him and he couldn’t wiggle free for open shots off the ball. A lack of counters in the playbook to Brooklyn’s top-lock defense only exacerbated the issue. So, in Game 2, the Sixers and Redick were ready, as he bounced back to the tune of 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
A lot of it stemmed from a simple mantra: if they’re top-locking or denying you, dart into the opening they’ve presented. Redick did exactly that for most of his buckets. Whether it was drifting toward the available baseline and snaring passes for open shots or slicing behind his man into blank real estate, the quality of his attempts were high:
Redick is a 13-year veteran. He has seen a litany of off-ball defensive coverage throughout his career and is too experienced and heady to be so easily stymied. Expecting him to continue stubbornly adhering to the Sixers’ patented sets was a fool’s errand. Joe Harris isn’t a pushover defensively, but he’s not Marcus Smart either. Redick probably won’t hit 58.3 percent of his shots the rest of the series, but he’s not going to be exiled like he was in Game 1. It might not look as seamless as many of the buckets in the video above, but Monday’s contest is far more representative of the production we should expect from Redick moving forward.