76ers

Predictions for Game 4 of Sixers vs. Nets playoff series

Predictions for Game 4 of Sixers vs. Nets playoff series

After a 131-115 win in Brooklyn on Thursday night, the Sixers can come home a game away from advancing to the second round.

Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick give their predictions for Game 4: 

Hudrick
With Joel Embiid listed as doubtful … I actually have no clue what that means. He was doubtful in Game 1, but played. He was questionable in Game 2 and played. He was questionable and said his knee was getting better before Game 3, but didn’t play.

If the Sixers are looking to get Embiid rest, they’re playing a dangerous game. If Embiid is available, even if not at 100 percent, it would make more sense to play him, win Game 4 and then rest him for Game 5. When you start getting into these scenarios at all it seems dicey.

The good news for the Sixers is that they’ve proven they can beat the Nets without their All-Star center. Ben Simmons was the best player on the floor Thursday night while Tobias Harris appears to have gotten his swagger back. Brooklyn looked like it had never seen the JJ Redick dribble handoff action before, as the Sixers repeatedly went to that well.

The biggest reason the Sixers appear to be OK without Embiid is the steady play of Boban Marjanovic. The hulking center has been the team’s most consistent player in the series. You expect his efficient offense (14.3 points in 17.3 minutes a game while shooting 62 percent) but his defense was a major concern coming into this series. He’s more than stepped up to the challenge of being able to affect shots at the rim from the Nets’ dangerous guard trio.

The proposition of starting Greg Monroe isn’t great, but if the veteran big can just be a little better than he was in Game 3, it could go a long way.

With or without Embiid for Game 4, the Sixers come back to the Wells Fargo Center with a chance to punch their ticket to the second round.

Levick 
The Sixers’ offense dictated the action in Game 3, playing at a pace which Nets coach Kenny Atkinson admitted was beyond his team’s comfort level. The ability of Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Harris to push the ball up the floor has allowed the Sixers to play at a fast tempo without an exorbitant number of turnovers. 

In theory, the idea of playing zone to force the Sixers to deviate from their favored patterns and actions is sensible for the Nets, but it doesn’t matter much if the Sixers don’t give Brooklyn’s defense time to set up. Using a zone also doesn’t seem like the smartest idea for the Nets when Harris (6 for 6 from three-point range in Game 3) and Redick (5 for 9) are on the floor.

Joe Harris, 0 for 6 from three-point territory in the last two games, is due for a big game. So too is Butler, limited to 19 points total in Games 2 and 3. I expect Butler to take control at the point in the fourth quarter and help the Sixers seal another win at Barclays Center.

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Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Everyone was in shock when Elton Brand was able to acquire Tobias Harris before the trade deadline.

Harris was having an All-Star-caliber season, flirting with the elite 50/40/90 shooting line and on his way to a big payday this offseason. 

When the move was made, and after Harris’ red-hot start with the Sixers, bringing him back seemed like a no-brainer. But Harris stumbled to the finish line and had an up-and-down playoff run. 

Should the Sixers bring back Harris and see what this loaded team can do with a full season or let him walk and secure the team’s depth? The answer isn’t black and white.

Harris’ first eight games as a Sixer were remarkably good. He averaged 21.9 points and shot 55/42/83, looking every bit like the player they traded for. His clutch 32-point performance in the team’s first win against the Thunder in forever was a virtuoso performance. He was outstanding and played closer.

Over the last 19 games, Harris averaged 16.7 points and his line went down to 43/27/85. That is a precipitous drop off. His playoff numbers were OK and reflective of his uneven performances. What will stick out most to fans is his 7-of-23 performance in a pivotal Game 4 against Toronto. That series loss is still raw and that game very well may have swung the series, so it’s fair.

But who outside of Jimmy Butler was consistently good in the second round? Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both struggled mightily in just their second postseason. Even Butler himself had a rough Game 7.

It’s important to keep in mind the context of Harris’ career. This was his eighth NBA season, but he’s just 26 years old. He’s also improved markedly over the course of his career. He was pretty much a non-threat from three for the first six years of his career, shooting just 33 percent on less than three attempts per game. Over the last two seasons, he was over 40 percent on over five attempts while being traded twice.

Given that improvement, it’s also fair to project Harris’ playoff play will improve. Before playing in 12 postseason contests with the Sixers, Harris’ only other playoff experience was when the Pistons were swept in the first round in 2016. Like Embiid and Simmons, this taste of failure could fuel him. It’s also fair to believe that improved performances by the Sixers’ young All-Stars could open more things up for Harris.

When you start talking money, it gets exceedingly more complicated. Signing Harris and Butler to near-max deals and giving Simmons his first max extension would push the Sixers over the luxury tax. It’s something that Josh Harris has repeatedly said would not be a problem. At that point, you’d be looking at a bench full of young, cheap players  and veteran ring chasers. 

If you let Harris walk, you could look on the free agent market and perhaps sign a trio of Terrence Ross, Corey Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon, as an example. There’s also a greater chance you could bring back JJ Redick and/or James Ennis and/or Mike Scott. That could ultimately be the more attractive option if you’re able to sign Jimmy Butler. 

If Butler leaves, you almost have to keep Harris. While the loss of Butler would sting, you’d be in solid shape building around the trio of Embiid, Simmons and Harris, all 26 or younger. If you don't strike early enough with Harris, he's going to have other suitors. He may have a little patience, but he's not going to wait forever.

Brand’s intention at the time of the Harris deal was to keep all four star-caliber players. While Brand said he was happy with what he saw out of Harris and Butler, was it enough to bring both back? 

It’s as difficult a decision as Brand will face this offseason.

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He's not perfect, but Jimmy Butler is worth the risk for Sixers in free agency

He's not perfect, but Jimmy Butler is worth the risk for Sixers in free agency

Jimmy Butler is flawed. Even he would tell you that. He’s grated teammates in the past with his uncompromising personality, looks nothing like a star in certain offensive schemes and has an extensive injury history.

Flaws and all, Butler is a player the Sixers should be willing to commit a lot of money to (up to the maximum of $190 million), and for a lot of years (up to five, which only they can offer), if their competition demands it. Retaining Butler for a bargain would obviously be preferable to giving him five years and $190 million, though, given the way he boosted his stock in the postseason, they very well may need to pay him the max. 

The concerns about Butler’s locker-room presence are fair in the context of his acrimonious exits from Chicago and Minnesota. All indications, however, are that he’s formed strong relationships with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Brett Brown (see story). Simmons and Embiid have both glowed about how Butler has facilitated their growth as leaders.

Butler also appears to have genuine respect for his teammates. He had a lot of fun in Philadelphia as well, another element that was evidently missing with the Timberwolves. 

“What hurts most about this loss is we had a great group of guys that would ride for one another,” Butler said at his exit interview Monday. “It was special. We enjoyed playing with each other. You couldn’t mess with anybody on the team because somebody was always going to be there, in your face. But to think that this roster might not be the exact same next year, that’s what really hurts.”

The worries about the heavy minutes Butler has logged and the injuries he’s suffered are valid, too. However, there wouldn’t be a burden on Butler to play 40 minutes every night alongside Simmons, Embiid and, potentially, Tobias Harris. Butler averaged 33.2 minutes in his 55 regular-season games with the Sixers, his lowest since the 2012-13 season. The Sixers have the freedom to manage his load in the regular season and be cautious with injuries to ensure they get the best version of “Playoff Jimmy.”

It is very possible that Butler’s play would decline in the fourth and fifth year of a long-term contract. With the Sixers shooting for a title now, that’s a sensible risk. If Butler can help lead the Sixers to a championship at 31 years old, the trade-off of him being expensive and diminished at 34 years old would be worth it.

As we expected when he first arrived, the on-court fit with Butler wasn’t perfect. He prefers pick-and-rolls and isolations and thrives in those settings, while Brown had built his offensive system around ball and player movement. Butler often faded into the background for the first three quarters of a game, relegated to a passive role, before taking command in the fourth quarter.

But Brown, Butler and the Sixers eventually identified and began to hone a few things that work. The potential of the Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll is immense, and it’s been clear since their early days together how dangerous Simmons and Butler can be in tandem when the Sixers push the ball.

Butler cleans up familiar weaknesses for the Sixers with perimeter defense and turnovers. His 6.9 turnover percentage was the lowest of any Sixers regular. And, as “the adult in the room,” he’s one player you can depend on for tenacious effort. If the Sixers want to avoid the exasperating inconsistency we saw this season, the stability of retaining Butler and the impact of having a competitor like him can’t hurt.

No, he doesn’t have a spotless past, and there are legitimate questions about his future, but Butler’s imperfections shouldn’t obscure his value. Elton Brand took a big risk in acquiring him, and he’d be smart to take another to keep him.

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