With all due respect to the Brooklyn Nets, who have a lot of great young talent and have played hard through the first two games of this first-round series, they are not a team equipped to compete in these current playoffs.
They traded away two of the greatest on-ball creators of this generation and were understandably unable to fill that vacuum offensively. They have no answer for Joel Embiid in one-on-one defensive situations (few teams do!), and have to turn to a gimmicky, ultra-aggressive doubling scheme that relies on all non-Embiid Sixers missing wide-open shots.
So while yes, you theoretically shouldn’t look ahead against anyone, the Sixers should have two main priorities while finishing out this series:
1) Stay healthy;
2) Figure out the rotation for how to best combat Boston.
The first can best be accomplished by playing your “A” game from the opening tip and maybe affording the starters some rest in the fourth quarter, as Philadelphia was able to do in Game 1. As for the second, let’s examine the team’s options.
Doc Rivers could go with an eight-man rotation. De’Anthony Melton is the sixth man and has been an effective player on both ends of the game all season long. He’s locked in. So too is Paul Reed, who solidified his backup center role a couple months ago and has evolved into Playoff Paul this postseason. I think the team feels comfortable with BBall Paul getting burn, even if Doc opts to spend some minutes with P.J. Tucker at the five next series.
The eighth man looks to be Jalen McDaniels, after the 25-year-old logged 17 and 22 minutes in the first two games of this Brooklyn series. When the Sixers acquired McDaniels at the trade deadline, Daryl Morey repeatedly said the team viewed McDaniels as a contributor who wouldn’t be viewed as a liability on either end of the court in a playoff environment. Even though he went scoreless in Game 2, Doc Rivers liked that the Nets paid close attention to Jalen on cuts and dives to the basket, and left him in the game in place of P.J. Tucker as part of the closing lineup in the fourth quarter.
Honestly, I’d be perfectly happy if the Sixers kept it at eight against the Celtics. With the season on the line, the starters are going to ramp up to 38-40 minutes per night. Three guys off the bench can cover that additional 40-50 total minutes without an issue. However, if Philadelphia wants to go with nine guys, who should they choose?
I love Georges Niang — the Minivan nickname, the “Bang, Bang, Georges Niang” on-air call, the trash-talking on the court — it’s all terrific. But he should not see the floor against Boston. We’ve already seen Brooklyn pick on him defensively in this series, and when the difficulty ramps up against Boston’s superior offensive weapons, Niang will be roasted, toasted, and burnt to a crisp. He also struggles to get his shot off when the opponent has a bunch of long, rangy defenders. Niang had no shot attempts in Game 2 against the Nets, and in the last two regular season meetings against Boston, he combined to shoot 0-of-6 from the field for zero points.
So if Niang wouldn’t play against Boston, wouldn’t there be value in looking at the other options in these last couple games against Brooklyn? Danuel House, Jr. saw a couple non-garbage minutes in Game 2. The team initially acquired him in the offseason because he was viewed as the sort of 3-and-D wing who could see the floor in the postseason. While he fell out of favor in the regular season, it might be wise to give House one last look.
Or Doc Rivers could go small with Shake Milton. Shake has been as steady as they come all season, ramping up his usage and thriving when the Hospital Sixers were winning hearts in the Delaware Valley, or being an efficient off-ball player when called upon in reduced roles. The only reason Milton is out of the rotation is because the Sixers have three rock-solid guard options ahead of him. I feel good about Shake at least being a neutral contributor on both sides of the ball; the Sixers have enough size on the wings between Tobias Harris, Tucker, and McDaniels that they might be able to survive a few minutes of small-ball.
Whatever the final result might be, now is the time to solidify it. The margin of error will be practically non-existent against Boston, and waiting until Game 1 or 2 at the Garden to decide could cost the Sixers a game, and thereby the series and the season. Philadelphia has the luxury of trying out some different things in Brooklyn. So strap on the safety goggles, Doc, and let’s experiment.