Before his team took the floor, Brett Brown admitted the Sixers had “dodged some bullets” in their first four games against the Nets. He was especially wary of Joe Harris, the NBA leader in three-point percentage during the regular season, noting the open looks he’d missed.
The Sixers’ defense made sure Brooklyn didn’t have any more bullets in the chamber Tuesday night in a 122-100 win that sealed a spot in the second round (see observations).
Though aided by Brooklyn’s abysmal effort, the Sixers’ first-half defensive performance couldn’t have been much better.
Ben Simmons smothered D’Angelo Russell, who shot 1 for 9 in the half. Jimmy Butler hunted the ball, recording three steals and causing chaos. The rotations were sharp, the communication crisp, and the intensity only escalated as the Nets’ shoulders collectively slumped.
Brooklyn at one stage had as many made field goals as turnovers (seven). It finished the half with 31 points, tied for the fewest the Sixers have ever allowed in a playoff game, per Basketball-Reference.
“Maybe the best we’ve defended all season, given the problems they present for our team,” JJ Redick said. “The first half was as good as you can guard.”
Defense was a concern for the Sixers entering the playoffs. Third in defensive rating in 2017-18, they finished this year tied for 13th. Pick-and-roll defense was a familiar problem. The big-picture question Brown posed at the start of training camp about how to cope when teams went small and tried to pull Joel Embiid away from the rim remained open throughout the season.
They seem to have hit on some solutions, though simply having superior individual perimeter defenders compared to last season’s team might be the most important one.
“I’m not going to say anything about last year's guys,” Embiid said, “but it doesn't make a difference. We got to stick to the game plan and usually the game plan is to drive all these guys to me and let me do my job as the best defensive player in the league.”
An excellent fourth quarter in Game 4 and a record-tying half in Game 5 doesn’t indicate that the Sixers’ defense is flawless. They’ve yet to show they can defend this well on a consistent basis, and potential liabilities like Redick and Boban Marjanovic will likely be challenged more in the second round against the Raptors.
The Sixers have demonstrated, however, that all the platitudes about defense fueling offense and being a priority in the playoffs are more than just words.
“I think [losing Game 1] immediately forced us into recognizing that we are vulnerable if we don't play like we got to play defense,” Brown said. “If I were to go to one specific thing, the first game was a reminder that we better guard the way that we said we wanted to defend them or it's going to be a long series and one that we could lose.”
Regardless of whether Redick is making shots or Simmons is effective in the half court or Embiid can dominate Marc Gasol and company, this level of defense should keep the Sixers in every game.
If Butler is to be believed, the Sixers are capable.
He didn’t agree with Redick that this was the best the Sixers have defended all season.
“Nah,” he said, unmoved. “We’ve been locking up at practice.”
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