Tobias Harris

Sixers 131, Nets 115: With Joel Embiid out, Sixers impose will on Nets to take back home court

Sixers 131, Nets 115: With Joel Embiid out, Sixers impose will on Nets to take back home court

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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 points 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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Joel Embiid plays through pain in Game 1 loss to Nets but doesn't erase doubts

Joel Embiid plays through pain in Game 1 loss to Nets but doesn't erase doubts

Doubtful does not seem to mean the same thing for Joel Embiid as it does for the average NBA player.

Though Embiid was listed as such on the NBA’s official injury report prior to the Sixers’ series opener vs. the Nets, all the cameras and cell phones were still following his every move over two hours before tip-off, observing the brace on his sore left knee and searching for hints about whether he’d play.

Ultimately, Embiid did take the floor, and in 24 minutes he recorded 22 points on 5 for 15 shooting, 15 rebounds, four assists and five blocks in the Sixers’ 111-102 loss (see observations). He was sensational at times, like when he slithered through the Nets’ defense with a smooth sidestep and converted an and-one in the third quarter, but he wasn’t his usual self.

Getting up and down the court was a painful process.

“I decided about 15 minutes before the game, 20 maybe,” Embiid said. “I was out there just with my guys and push through the pain. And obviously it came with a loss, but I was just trying to do the right thing.”

Embiid admitted he needed to adapt his game because of his knee pain. He shot 1 for 9 in the first half, missing all five of his three-point attempts.

“Going into the game I was going to try to kind of reduce my physical abilities and just shoot more jumpers and that’s what I did,” he said. “They didn’t go in, but we move on.”

Brett Brown attributed Embiid settling for three-pointers “exclusively to fatigue.” Embiid hadn’t played in a week, and his conditioning deterioritated during that time. 

“Out of shape,” Embiid said. “Obviously I haven’t done anything for a week, since the Chicago game. But I’m fine. I’m going to get it right back.”

The apparent spontaneity of the situation was unusual. Embiid decided to ditch the knee brace after warming up, since he said it was putting pressure on his calf and tibia. 

There isn’t a standard procedure for how to balance your star player’s health, comfort and pain level with your team’s chances of winning a playoff game or series. Jimmy Butler said he’s advised Embiid on how to handle his side of the complicated equation.

“I tell him all the time, yeah, he can help us, but at the same time he can hurt us if it gets worse,” Butler said. “Don’t get me wrong, we want Jo out there. But we definitely want him healthy.”

Embiid’s primary backup, Boban Marjanovic, played well Saturday, scoring 13 points on 5 for 7 shooting and dishing out four assists. The Sixers might soon be forced to determine whether a grimacing Embiid is preferable to a healthy Marjanovic.

For the time being, the Sixers are optimistic Embiid’s knee starts trending in the right direction and that they can avoid the sort of uncomfortable questions central to Saturday night’s loss.

“He definitely did try to go and give it his best,” Tobias Harris said of Embiid. “I have respect for him for fighting through that. Obviously we need him to get healthy. Hopefully in this little period of time he can get some rest and get recovered, but it was tough because he wasn’t really playing his normal way.”

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Ben Simmons doesn't endear himself to Sixers fans with comment about booing after Game 1 loss to Nets

Ben Simmons doesn't endear himself to Sixers fans with comment about booing after Game 1 loss to Nets

Ben Simmons is often direct when answering questions from the media. His responses are usually straightforward, and he doesn’t waste much time trying to formulate them.

After the Sixers’ 111-102 loss to the Nets on Saturday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series (see observations), he was asked his thoughts on the frustration from the crowd at Wells Fargo Center. He paused for a couple of seconds, then said this:

If you’re going to boo, then stay on that side. That’s how I feel. If you’re a Sixers fan and you’re going to boo, stay on that side.

It’s likely not a quote that will endear him to the Sixers fans already groaning at his continued unwillingness to accept the frequent invitations he has to shoot open jumpers, and already frustrated by his nine-point, seven-rebound, three-assist performance vs. Brooklyn. The boos for Simmons were especially loud following two missed free throws late in the third quarter. A 60 percent free throw shooter during the regular season, Simmons shot 1 for 5 from the foul line Saturday.

Simmons wasn’t pleased with how he played either.

“Yeah, I think I was just thinking too much and not being a playmaker,” he said. 

His teammates had different perspectives on the boos.

“I heard it, too,” Tobias Harris said after scoring a season-low four points in 40 minutes. “It is what it is.”

And Jimmy Butler, who almost single-handedly kept the Sixers in the game with a playoff career-high 36 points, acknowledged there was a simple way the Sixers could make the booing stop. 

“I understand it,” Butler said. “They want to see us win — I want to see us win, too. In the end, I think we just gotta do better. I guarantee if we’re winning, they’re not booing, so that’s the way to change it. Let’s just go out there and win on Monday.”

For Simmons, it might take a little more than a win in Game 2 to turn the boos into cheers after his comment. Philadelphia sports fans generally aren’t of the opinion that booing is mutually exclusive with being a fan of a team.

Butler dismissed a reporter’s question about whether he needed to talk with Simmons about his remark.

“He’s a grown man,” he said. “If that’s the way that he feels, that’s the way that he feels.”

Joel Embiid, like Butler, understood the boos, but he also recognized how they could become irritating for some players.

"It’s tough. I heard a couple people yelling that it felt like a board game," Embiid said. "I love the fans and I never say anything about them. They show us love. It’s understandable. They come in, they pay a lot of money, they want the game to be entertaining. They want to watch us win so I understand why they boo.

"But the fact that it’s after every single miss, when shots aren’t going to fall. Tonight they didn’t fall, but for me, I’m fine. I’ll play through anything. But for some guys it’s annoying. It can be annoying. It’s like every missed shot, you get booed so you get the next one and it’s kind of like, ‘Should I shoot it or should I not because I’m about to get booed?’ I don’t know. Some guys are like that. It’s hard. I think we all got to do a better job. Us, the fans, but I don’t blame them. We got to bring the fun and go to play sharp."

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