76ers

Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

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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How the Sixers are trying to help Tobias Harris snap out of it

How the Sixers are trying to help Tobias Harris snap out of it

They say that shooters shoot.

Tobias Harris has been shooting plenty — they just haven’t been going down.

After going 0 for 11 from three on Tuesday night against the Cavs, Harris went 0 for 3 and 3 of 13 overall in the Sixers’ loss to the Magic in Orlando Wednesday (see observations).

The last three Harris hit was in the first quarter of the Sixers’ loss in Phoenix on Nov. 4. He’s missed his last 23 attempts since.

When Harris was acquired from the Clippers last season, he was shooting 43.4 percent from downtown in a healthy sample size.

So what the heck is going on?

“I'm not making shots, I'm not in a rhythm,” Harris said to reporters postgame. “That's it. Obviously, it's easier said than done but I'm going to find my rhythm and once I do those shots are going to be there and they're going to be able to be made. Until then, I'll watch film and see the looks I can get, see the easy ones I can get to, but when they're not going for me, get to the free throw line. 

“In the fourth quarter I thought that was two questionable whistles, a travel and offensive [foul]. So those are two turnovers that kind of affected our fourth quarter. But I just gotta find a rhythm. That's it.”

On top of missing, Harris just looks indecisive. During early parts of the season, he appeared to be passing up open shots. In his pregame availability before Tuesday’s win, Brett Brown made a point to talk about needing Harris to have a scorer’s mentality.

Over the last two games, Harris seems like he doesn’t know when to shoot the basketball. After shooting so poorly from the outside against Cleveland, in Orlando he appeared to just get caught in between while trying to drive to the basket more.

It just seems like Harris is in his own head.

“I think it's just human nature,” Brown said. “He wants to please, he wants to shoot the ball, he wants to score, we need him to score.”

Harris is an easy target for fan ire. GM Elton Brand gave up an awful lot to get him before last year’s trade deadline. During the summer, the Sixers gave Harris a five-year, $180 million deal — the richest in franchise history.

But to his credit, Harris hasn’t made any excuses. He faced the music Wednesday night after not playing well and not feeling well.

Brown mentioned Tuesday that Harris had been dealing with an illness. Harris didn’t want to take the easy way out and attribute that to anything.

“When I get out there and play, I'm playing,” Harris said. “I'm under the weather, yeah, but if I get out there and play, I believe I can go.”

Forget the big contract and disappointing start for a second — Harris is a worker. He’s worked on his game tirelessly to rise to the level he did last season in L.A. During the offseason, he stepped up as a leader that all of his teammates are eager and willing to follow. He’s been depended upon by the young players and veterans alike.

Now, it may be Harris who needs their support.

“Tobias has had great looks and he's a great player, great shooter,” Ben Simmons said. “I mean, at times, everybody gets down when they're not playing their best game. They know that they can do better. But he's one of those guys. He's always positive. And we all believe in him.”

The Sixers’ road trip continues Friday with a date with the Thunder. Oklahoma City is the site of Harris’ finest game as a Sixer. On Feb. 28 of last year, Harris poured in 32 points and led a tough road win without Joel Embiid.

Maybe the memory of that game will spark something in Harris.

If that doesn't work, what else can you really say?

“Keep shooting,” Brown said. “Don't listen to any of you guys. Don't read anything. Keep shooting.”

After all, shooters shoot.

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Sixers Talk podcast: What is going on with Tobias Harris?

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NBC Sports Philadelphia/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: What is going on with Tobias Harris?

Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss Tobias Harris' struggles continuing, Ben Simmons' unwillingness to shoot the ball, and why Matisse Thybulle isn't seeing more playing time.

• Another rough night for Harris. What the heck is going on?

• Simmons was strong, but still refuses to shoot the basketball outside the paint.

• Should Thybulle be getting more minutes?

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

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