NEW YORK — The news approximately 20 minutes before tip-off Thursday night of Joel Embiid’s absence with left knee soreness was not a death sentence for the Sixers.
A brilliant Ben Simmons (31 points on 11 for 13 shooting and nine assists), excellent shooting nights from Tobias Harris (29 points) and JJ Redick (26 points), and an unlikely tandem at center ensured the Nets are much closer to death this season than the Sixers, who beat Brooklyn, 131-115, to take a 2-1 series lead.
Here are observations from the Sixers’ win:
• Greg Monroe started in Embiid’s place, and it was not an auspicious first few minutes for him. He allowed two early offensive boards to Jarrett Allen, fouling the Nets’ center on one and conceding a dunk on the other as the Nets took a 9-4 edge. His mobility was minimal and labored.
Boban Marjanovic replaced Monroe after five minutes and, as he has throughout the series, improbably held his own in space defensively. The 7-foot-3 Marjanovic actually moved with more fluidity on defense than Monroe. In pick-and-roll coverage, Marjanovic had better instincts than Monroe for how to buy the ball handler’s defender time when he fell a step behind on the initial move, and for how to challenge shots at the rim.
Monroe had seven points on 3 for 12 shooting and 12 rebounds, while Marjanovic finished with 14 rebounds and eight rebounds. He’s the only Sixer who’s played well in all three games against Brooklyn.
• Simmons proved again that his poor Game 1 performance was an anomaly.
Jared Dudley, the 12-year-veteran who’d called Simmons “average” in the half court, had no points in 16 minutes and air-balled a three-point attempt from the right wing. Though Simmons dismissed Dudley's comment at shootaround, saying, “That’s coming from Jared Dudley. Come on,” he seemed determined to show just how wrong Dudley’s assessment was.
There’s no doubt Dudley is correct, however, that Simmons is a tremendous player in transition.
Simmons made two key plays at the end of quarters. He blocked LeVert’s three-pointer at the end of the first, timing his jump to perfection.
And he slammed in Redick’s miss with 1.1 seconds left in the first half, lifting the Sixers to a 65-59 lead.
The Sixers frequently used Simmons off the ball, allowing Jimmy Butler to handle much of the point guard duties. Butler had 16 points, seven assists and one turnover. He has 14 assists and two turnovers over the past two games.
• When Marjanovic sat, you gained a better appreciation for how vital he’s been for the Sixers this series.
Brooklyn soon erased the Sixers’ 32-24 lead after the first quarter, and their run again came with Monroe on the floor. Caris LeVert beat Redick in the pick-and-roll and converted back-to-back floaters without any resistance from Monroe early in the second, prompting a Brett Brown timeout. After yet another LeVert floater and a LeVert three-pointer, Brown re-inserted Marjanovic.
It had only been a few minutes, but it felt like the Sixers had been without Marjanovic forever, given the Nets’ stretch of uninhibited success in the paint.
The pattern continued in the second half as the Nets went on runs in the third and fourth quarter when Marjanovic exited the game. Brown was so reliant on Marjanovic that he put him in the game with five fouls and just under nine minutes to play. While understandable, the decision didn’t pay off as Marjanovic was called for a dubious offensive foul with 7:05 to play.
Mike Scott stepped in at center with Marjanovic out, and he matched up well against the Nets’ Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Sixers pulled away from the Nets with Scott on the floor.
• It took almost seven minutes for Harris to attempt his first field goal, a smooth jumper from the right wing off a side pick-and-roll with Marjanovic. He wasn’t shy about searching for his shot once he broke the ice, though, stepping into a pull-up three soon after from the top of the key.
The law of averages was a beautiful thing to behold for Harris, Redick and the Sixers. Redick, 3 for 9 from three-point range combined in Games 1 and 2, made three in the first four-plus minutes of the second half alone and scored 16 of his 26 points in the quarter.
Meanwhile, Harris nailed all six of his threes after shooting 2 for 6 from long range in the series’ first two games.
• “Same old, same old,” Brett Brown said pregame when confirming Embiid would be a game-time decision.
But unlike the first two games in this series, the Sixers decided Embiid’s left knee soreness was enough to sideline him.
Embiid spoke a little less than an hour before the game. In the middle of a large scrum of curious reporters, he said his knee was getting better “slowly but surely,” though it doesn’t sound like his progress is linear or predictable — he characterized some days as worse than others.
He said he’s concerned with “loading” and taking care of himself on off days, in close consultation with the Sixers’ training staff. Shortly after declining a reporter’s request to reflect on “The Process,” Embiid — who again used the word “tendinitis” to describe his condition — said he has to “Trust The Process” with his knee. Even when the circumstances are serious, he can’t help but use his signature slogan.
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