76ers

Sixers 112, Nets 108: Joel Embiid otherworldly, Mike Scott makes game-winning three-pointer as Sixers take wild Game 4

Sixers 112, Nets 108: Joel Embiid otherworldly, Mike Scott makes game-winning three-pointer as Sixers take wild Game 4

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NEW YORK — It was never in doubt.

Led by an otherworldly Joel Embiid, the Sixers took a commanding 3-1 series lead with a thrilling 112-108 win over the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center Saturday afternoon.

JJ Redick, who struggled for much of the game, hit a huge three to give the Sixers a 107-106 lead with 50 seconds left. Then Joe Harris, who has had a nightmare of a series, hit a backdoor layup with 25 seconds left to give Brooklyn a 108-107 lead.

Mike Scott, who also hasn’t had the best series, nailed a corner three with 18.6 left to put the Sixers up 110-108. The Sixers then smothered Jarrett Allen underneath as Ben Simmons just ripped the ball out of his hands. Tobias Harris hit a pair of free throws to seal the win.

Listed as doubtful coming in, Embiid was spectacular in every aspect of the game and willed his team to a win.

The Sixers will have a chance to punch their ticket to the second round Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

Here are observations from the win:

• We were waiting for this series to get a little extra physical and we got that and then some in the third quarter. Embiid committed a hard foul on Allen. Then Jared Dudley went after Embiid. Jimmy Butler then came to the defense of Embiid and shoved Dudley.

When the dust settled, Embiid got called for a dubious Flagrant 1 foul and Butler and Dudley were both given double technicals and ejected. That’s a trade-off the Nets will take any day of the week. Butler was having a strong game up until that point as well. The Sixers also could’ve used Butler in the fourth quarter with the game still close.

• We should all probably stop guessing whether Embiid is going to play. He played and looked strong early. He made his first two buckets from the top of the key and hit a midrange jumper and short hook shot. He made two sensational passes out of double teams, finding two open corner threes — a Scott miss and Butler make. It’s something Embiid has improved on tremendously.

Defensively, this guy is just ridiculous. The combo of Simmons and Embiid in the pick-and-roll on defense hasn’t ended well for the Nets in this series. Embiid had three blocks in the first half alone. He played just 10 minutes and was a plus-8 before halftime.

He was phenomenal Saturday, finishing with 31 points, 16 rebounds, six blocks and seven assists in 31 minutes.

The chemistry between the pair was strong again on offense as Embiid spotted Simmons on doubles multiple times. Simmons was solid again, recording 15 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.

• Nets coach Kenny Atkinson knows he’s not going to win a defensive battle with the Sixers. With that in mind, he inserted Caris LeVert into the starting lineup. LeVert scored the first bucket of the game on his way to 11 first-quarter points. He gave Brooklyn juice early on, helping the Nets get out to a nine-point lead after one.

LeVert (25 points) and reserve guard Spencer Dinwiddie (18 points) sparked the Nets in a big way, while D’Angelo Russell (6 of 19 for 21 points) and Joe Harris (4 of 14 for 10 points) continued to struggle.

The other change was inserting Dudley. It was a much smaller starting five without DeMarre Carroll and Rodions Kurucs. Dudley and Simmons did share some words after an early timeout, but nothing came out of it.

• It’s noticeable that Brett Brown has listened more and more to his players. You saw a bunch of pick-and-rolls with Butler and Harris featured as the ball handlers. It’s not a staple of Brown’s offense, but it is something both Butler and Harris excel in. It’s also something the Nets struggle to defend.

Both players got off to strong starts, as Harris posted a team-high 14 points in the first half and Butler had 11. They had three assists each as well.

Harris seems to be getting more and more time at the point, and he seems to be relishing that role. He had 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists. He was 0 for 4 from three after hitting 6 of 6 in Game 3.

• Unfortunately, Boban Marjanovic came back down to earth early on in this one. Brooklyn was able to expose him, most noticeably Allen, who hasn’t matched up against Marjanovic much. This was Allen’s most productive game of the series. The second-year big had 21 points.

In a game in which the Sixers seemed very wary of Embiid’s minutes in the first half, Brown had trouble finding a solution with Marjanovic struggling. Rookie Jonah Bolden came in and looked like a rookie —  he played three minutes and was a minus-6. Greg Monroe didn’t fare much better in his quick stint.

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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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