Opposing teams’ scouting reports revolve around Joel Embiid — and rightfully so. The star big man is the NBA’s back-to-back scoring champ and likely the league’s MVP.
So, if you told Jacque Vaughn ahead of Game 1 that the Nets would hold Embiid to only 26 points he likely would have felt good about his team’s chances.
But the Sixers’ supporting cast — and a patient Embiid — made Brooklyn pay again and again for its aggressive double teams in a 121-101 win at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday.
A big part of the Sixers’ offensive success: throwing “strikes.”
“We did a baseball thing all week where every pass is a ball or a strike,” Doc Rivers said. “And we throw a lot of balls, and you miss those shots. But when you throw a lot of strikes, you make those shots. I don’t know if you saw, a couple of times … [P.J. Tucker] threw one and he was going down the floor: ‘Strike two.’ That’s important. On-target passes help, and I thought we did that tonight.”
Well, the results would seem to speak for themselves.
The Sixers hit 48.8 percent of their attempts from deep and set a franchise single-game playoff record with 21 made threes. While those numbers are obviously incredible they’re not shocking for two reasons: the Sixers are a great three-point shooting team and the Nets gave them WIDE-OPEN looks.
The Sixers finished the regular season atop the NBA in three-point percentage at 38.7 percent. Of the nine players in the playoff rotation, only Embiid and Paul Reed shot below 38.5 percent from three (Jalen McDaniels hit 40 percent as a Sixer, albeit on a small sample size).
Brooklyn (correctly) made the decision to sell out on stopping Embiid. The traps were aggressive and frequent throughout the day. To his credit, Embiid was patient, recognizing where the doubles were coming from and not forcing the issue.
His teammates were the beneficiaries.
“Every single possession, they just kept doubling,” Embiid said. “It didn’t matter where I was — the three-point line, the post. So I’ve got to trust in my teammates, got to make the simple plays. And we took advantage of that scheme.”
James Harden led the way with a game-high seven made threes. While he made a few of his patented step-back treys, he benefited from Embiid’s decision-making as well.
“It makes it easy,” Harden said. “[Embiid is] going to get his buckets no matter what. That’s just how good he is. And then we’re making shots, we’re attacking the basket, and we’re just generating easier shots for us. I think that was the key tonight.”
Harden is actually the first player in NBA postseason history to make seven triples and record 13 assists in a game. While he struggled to finish at the rim, Harden’s ability to get downhill opened up things for the offense and it made the threat of his step-back all the more lethal.
Rivers was full of baseball analogies — despite his beloved White Sox sitting at 6-9 and the Local Nine sitting at 5-10. He said his point guard’s game Saturday was akin to that of J.T. Realmuto.
“James had one of his best games being, I guess, a catcher, where he’s calling the perfect game.”
Another result of the Nets’ aggressive double teams: offensive rebounds.
With Brooklyn in scramble mode, the Sixers were able to haul in 14 offensive rebounds and score 21 second-chance points. P.J. Tucker flipped the switch to playoff mode and snagged five offensive boards.
What a refreshing change of pace for the Sixers — Tucker snagging offensive rebounds to help them in a playoff game.
“If they’re going to double, the glass is open,” Tucker said. “You’ve got to be aggressive. That’s one of the costs of doubling, not being able to rebound out of it. A lot of times, I have guys on me that can’t stop me from getting rebounds. So getting us extra possessions, there’s going to be games that we’re going to need ‘em. … Getting extra shots at the basket changes the game.”
NBA playoff series are often chess matches where the strategy changes from game to game. Will Brooklyn continue with the audacious doubles on Embiid and allow the supporting cast to keep getting great looks and offensive rebounds?
The Sixers are happy to let the Nets pick their poison.
“We’ll wait and see. I can’t tell you,” Harden said, “He’s the MVP, so it’s like, would you rather him score 40 or live with us making shots? Either way, it’s fine. We’ll be ready either way.”