As NBC Sports Philadelphia prepares to re-air it tonight (7 p.m.), we look back on Game 5 of Sixers-Nets at Wells Fargo Center on April 23, 2019.
Joel Embiid had 10 points, Jimmy Butler had four and the Brooklyn Nets had zero.
When you’re watching a game, you’ll often have small notes — tidbits for future reference, interesting matchups or schemes, impressions in the moment.
For Game 5 of the first-round playoff series between the Sixers and Nets last year, you kept returning to the score. 14-0. 25-3. 30-6. They’re the kind of numbers that don’t make sense, especially in a playoff elimination game, so you write them down hoping that will somehow help. The Sixers led by 29 points after two quarters, their largest playoff halftime lead ever.
Looking back, there were logical explanations. The Sixers had won Game 3 without Embiid on the strength of big performances from Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. They then took a Game 4 that was about as dramatic and intense as a first-round playoff game can be. Brooklyn was vulnerable, the Sixers’ defense was locked in and Embiid was coming off an incredible performance.
“We had talked about how a team’s mindset down 3-1,” JJ Redick said, “if you can take their heart early, you might have a chance to put them away, deliver the knockout punch, all the boxing analogies I can come up with.
“I have some dark analogies, but I shared those with the team. I don’t want to share them with you guys, but they’re dark. But yeah, you gotta put people away.”
The game was over very early, with no Sixer playing more than 27 minutes and Embiid only needing to spend 20 on his troublesome left knee. There was a lot of time to consider what was next, and to wonder what the Sixers could accomplish if they put it all together consistently — though that reflection was interrupted with less than two minutes left by an altercation that resulted in ejections for Jonah Bolden, Greg Monroe, Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa.
The Sixers had been on a search for identity and continuity that sometimes felt futile since trading in February for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic. Their first-choice starting five only played 10 regular-season games together. With the sample size so small, any time they had together felt worthy of deep analysis. Was Simmons having enough of an offensive impact in the “dunker spot?” How was the Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll coming along? Where did Harris fit in?
In the first quarter of Game 5, there wasn’t an opportunity to ask any of those questions. The defense was physical, focused and discouraging, and the lead kept growing and growing. We may sometimes overrate body language in pro sports, looking for signs of weakness that don’t exist, but the Nets just didn’t have the confidence they’d maintained through most of the series. D’Angelo Russell was tossing up contested jumpers because he knew it might be the best shot available that possession against Simmons, not because he believed he would make them. Russell ended up shooting 3 for 16 in the game, 35.9 percent in the series.
Everyone understood the second round against the Raptors would be more of a challenge. Toronto had won 58 regular-season games and four straight to clinch their first-round series against the Magic, Marc Gasol was a tougher matchup for Embiid than Jarrett Allen or the Nets’ zone defense, and Kawhi Leonard was waiting.
Those were concerns for another day. That night, the Sixers were pleased to be moving on and aware of just how well they’d opened the game, but not overjoyed.
“I thought the start to this game was impactful, was powerful for us,” Harris said. “When we talk about imposing our will, that was a sound example of that.”
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