As I stated in my Game 3 preview, no NBA team has ever lost a series after securing a 3-0 lead. So the question now is not whether the Philadelphia 76ers will advance past the Brooklyn Nets, but whether they can do so as quickly as they can to ensure they’re as well-rested and healthy as possible heading into a second-round series against Boston.
The health part of that equation is being tested by Brooklyn’s strategy of “We can’t beat Joel Embiid, so let’s beat him up.” At every opportunity, they’ve been bodying him, giving him forearm shivers to the back, and just generally trying to make him more worried about protecting his body than playing a basketball game. In Game 3, Joel was in visible discomfort for probably half the time he was on the court, troubled by both his lower back and knee after a handful of hard falls to the hardwood. Well, you got your wish, Jacque Vaughn. Embiid will now miss Game 4 with a sprained knee suffered last game.
If you’re hoping for positive news, the Sixers did go 2-0 against Brooklyn this regular season in games where Joel sat out, although the regular season finale obviously didn’t include regulars from either side. However, the Sixers did win, 115-106, back in November, with Paul Reed coming off the bench for 19 points, 10 rebounds, three steals, and two blocks. Philadelphia will need a similar stop along the Paul Reed Victory Tour this afternoon. And, of course, everyone will find things more difficult offensively with Brooklyn not frantically trying to double team Embiid every trip down the court. Is this the day the Dewayne Dedmon buyout market signing pays off in a big way? OK, I’m losing my grip on reality, moving along.
But hey, the Sixers are up 3-0 in a playoff series, so let’s focus on the good things, shall we? James Harden looked much better in Game 3 before his apparent make-up call ejection (facepalm, Tony Brothers). As my colleague Dave Early pointed out, since the Sixers ended up winning the game anyway, let’s just view the ejection as some fortuitous load management for the veteran guard. Games 1 and (especially) 2 had us worried about the Beard’s health, but Game 3 was encouraging. He made a lay-up! He got to the free throw line! Have a similar performance today and I’m willing to put the Achilles concerns aside for the moment.
Then, there is Playoff P.J. Tucker, who stored up his energy through 75 regular season games of scoreless outings and dead hand troubles so that he could unleash it now by grabbing every possible offensive rebound in the postseason. I know the Dawg/Dog parlance is overused, but there’s no better way to describe Tucker when he hunts down a loose ball with the ferocity of a starving animal suddenly seeing a piece of red meat. I love Playoff P.J. Pay him $11 million a year until he’s 50, what do I care?
Above everything though, let’s appreciate Tyrese Maxey. The 22-year-old has scored 58 points across the past two games, leading the team in both contests. With Joel ailing and James sent to the locker room by some bumbling officiating, it was Tyrese who lit up the scoreboard for 10 points in Game 3’s fourth quarter to lead the Sixers to victory. Without Maxey catching fire like Katniss Everdeen, the series would definitely be heading back to Philadelphia for another game of wear and tear on Harden’s legs and Embiid’s entire body (if he could even take the floor for a Game 5). Getting this sweep today gives the Sixers their best chance at going toe-to-toe with Boston and Tyrese has kept that possibility alive with his play this week.
Finally, one quick shout-out to Nova guy Mikal Bridges, who has been amazing offensively while also guarding James Harden. Love to see you shine, Mikal. Hope to not feel as strongly distasteful about your punk-ish team in the future.
The Embiid news really deflated the excitement balloon, but we know what’s at stake this afternoon now more than ever. Win one more game and let’s get some extended rest for Joel and everyone else before that series we’ve known in our hearts would be coming all season long.