It took them a game-and-a-half.
The Philadelphia 76ers got booed off the floor in their own building in Game 1 on Saturday. They were up just one point at halftime of Game 2, fortunate that Joel Embiid didn’t get ejected late in the second quarter for a violent elbow to the head of Jarrett Allen.
But at the start of the third period on Monday, the most talented starting lineup in the Eastern Conference put its initial imprint on the NBA postseason with a 24-4 run that propelled the Sixers to a playoff record-tying 51-point quarter and an easy, 145-123 win to even the series at one game apiece.
The Sixers needed just nine offensive possessions to score those 24 points. And they got contributions from all five starters in the game-deciding run.
It started innocently enough, with Joel Embiid draining a 10-foot jumper from the left wing when Nets center Jarrett Allen gave him plenty of space to shoot. But then it was defense leading to transition offense.
The next two buckets came off of strong 1-on-1 defense and resulted in very similar finishes on the other end of the floor. First, a Tobias Harris stop against Nets rookie Rodions Kurucs led to a fast break in which Ben Simmons stopped at the foul line and fed Embiid cutting down the left side of the lane for an and-one bucket.
Then a Simmons contest of a D’Angelo Russell bucket led to another break. This time, Simmons drove all the way to the bucket and found Embiid trailing the play for a dunk.
That Embiid made both catches below the free-throw line was important in itself. It showed that he had more bounce and more energy than he displayed in Game 1, when he too often caught the ball near the 3-point line and six of his 15 shots came from outside the paint. He missed all six.
In Game 2, 11 of Embiid’s 12 shots came from inside the paint, with the jumper to start the third quarter being the one exception. He still caught the ball outside at times, but didn’t settle for jumpers with the Nets’ defense sagging in the paint. He finished with 23 points in fewer than 21 minutes of playing time, making 8-of-12 shots.
“If you’re going to leave me that much space, I feel like I can do other things with it,” Embiid said afterward about not shooting from the outside. “And tonight I just decided to be aggressive.”
Simmons was similarly aggressive, recording his second career postseason triple-double (18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists) after a disappointing performance in Game 1.
The onslaught continued after those two Simmons-to-Embiid transition buckets. After a Brooklyn miss, Jimmy Butler set a screen for Harris who got fouled on a pull-up 3. Then Butler deflected a Russell pass, Embiid saved the ball and Harris chased it down. Russell committed a clear-path foul, leading to a four-point possession that finished with Embiid catching the ball at the 3-point line, backing Allen down inside the paint, and draining a short turnaround jumper.
“They got multiple stops in a row,” Russell said, “and we couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
After the Nets finally got a second-half bucket, they went to a zone in an attempt to break the Philly rhythm. But that just got the Sixers’ zone-buster – J.J. Redick – involved. He found space on the left side of the floor and beating a Joe Harris close-out with a step-in jumper.
When Brooklyn went back to its man-to-man defense, Embiid posted up, rebounded his own miss and drew a foul on Kurucs. More Philly defense led to offense. Pressure from Simmons led Allen to throw an errant pass to Russell. Simmons picked up the loose ball and scored on the break.
After the Nets got their third and fourth points of the quarter, they got confused on defense and left Harris open beyond the arc, where he closed the 24-4 run with a 3-pointer.
It was a ridiculous offensive display:
- 24 points on just nine possessions (2.67 per) to start the half.
- 51 points on 26 possessions (1.96 per) for the entire third quarter.
- A franchise-record 145 points on 105 possessions (1.38 per) for the game.
… and the Sixers’ leading scorer in Game 1 (Jimmy Butler, 36 points) scored just seven in Game 2.
The Sixers’ starting lineup is potent. It’s also big and athletic. That was evident 1) on defense, where contested shots and forced turnovers led to those transition opportunities, and 2) on the glass, where 15 offensive rebounds led to 21 second-chance points.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said before Game 2 that his team was expecting “a haymaker” from the Sixers. He knew what he was talking about.
In Game 1, the Sixers’ starters were hampered by Embiid’s knee tendinitis and Redick’s foul trouble. Two nights later, we were all witness to a fully armed and operational battle station.
Because Game 2 got out of hand (closing with more than 10 minutes of garbage time), the starting lineup played together for just 9:52 on Monday. But in a total of 19 minutes and 15 seconds with all five Philly starters on the floor through two games, the score is Sixers 63, Nets 32.
Alas, the score of the series is 1-1. The blowout on Monday was worth the same as the Nets’ nine-point win two days earlier. Brooklyn still holds home-court advantage and can be happy with a split on the road.
But Embiid looking more like himself and the Sixers more aggressively exploiting the advantages they have in the paint can certainly be a sign of things to come. Philadelphia’s depth remains an issue and the spacing isn’t ideal within that starting group, but when things are clicking, you get a 24-4 run that will change a game … and maybe the series.
Game 3 is Thursday (8 ET; TNT).
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