The Sixers didn’t need their A game on Monday to take a 2-0 lead in the first round of their playoff series against the Nets.
Despite a rough premiere and 3-for-13 shooting night by James Harden, the Sixers earned a 96-84 Game 2 win over the Nets at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers turned the night around with a huge run in the third quarter. They were led by Therese Maxi, with 33 points.
Joel Embiid scored 20 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists. Tobias Harris scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Cameron Johnson was Brooklyn’s leading scorer with 28 points.
Game three will be Thursday night in Brooklyn. Here are notes on the Sixers’ Game 2 wins:
The Nets are upping their game
Offensive success did not come easily or immediately for the Sixers as it did in their Game 1 victory.
On the plus side, Harris scored five early points in the transition and Harden edged past Nick Claxton’s goal before converting the ball into a layup. However, the Sixers’ passing wasn’t as clear as it was on Saturday afternoon, and the team opened 0-for-5 from three-point range in the game after a 21-for-43 performance. Understandably, tough doubles were still central to the Nets’ defensive approach against Embiid, But Brooklyn changed the timing of its assist defense more instead of immediately throwing two Embiid defenders on every snap. That forced the Sixers to later investigate the shot clock for a good look.
Nets coach Jack Vaughn also got the increased physicality he wanted from his club, helping to ensure Brooklyn never again fell into a deep, fast possession deficit. The Nets were more forthcoming in their attempts to pick up the pace as well, sticking to just one turnover in the first quarter.
The Sixers stayed put on Mikal Bridges (21 points, seven assists) to see the defenders rally and bring Embiid to the perimeter in a pick-and-roll game involving the Villanova product. Johnson and Dorian Feeney Smith each sank three runs in the first quarter. This duo combined to score 18 of Brooklyn’s 25 points in that period. However, despite their improved efforts from Game One, the Nets were even with the Sixers after the first.
Harden struggles, Johnson advances, and the Nets reduce the turnover
Defensively, the Sixers’ second unit had a good start.
De’Anthony Melton put together one block late in the first quarter and another early in the second. Jalen McDaniels’ three errors in the first half were negative, but Milton and Paul Reid did well mostly scrambling, covering the ground quickly, and showing they could handle players of all sizes. Reed also scored two goals on the inside from Harden’s feed.
The Sixers had a hard time in Embiid’s lower minutes to start the second quarter, though. Harden-centric possessions dwindling to the end of the shot clock weren’t quite as good as in the first game. He picked up his second foul with 7:36 left in the second when he was called for a bridges push. Two minutes later, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers replaced Danuel House Jr. with Harden, who entered the break with just 2 points on 1-for-7 shooting.
The Nets left a few points on the table in the second quarter, including two consecutive free throws by Bridges with 23 seconds left. They still held a well-deserved lead at halftime, and felt it was fortunate for the Sixers that the team trailed by just five points. Vaughn removed backup center Day’Ron Sharpe from his rotation, cutting the Brooklyn bench to three players. Royce O’Neil and Vinnie Smith put in commendable efforts against Embiid. Collectively, the Nets were very good in the first half playing physical, hand-to-hand defense without conceding too many foul shots. Harden did not take any free throws for the second straight game.
Johnson surprisingly captured the No. 1 scoring role and showcased how his game has evolved to include much more than jumpers. He threw a huge dunk over Embiid late in the second half for two of his 22 points in the first half. Meanwhile, Maxey (15 points on a 6-for-8) was the most efficient and productive Sixer in the first half.
Sixers pivot boom switches
Rivers’ messages at half-time did not have the desired effect. Just 1 minute and 1 second into the third quarter, timeout was called after a layup by Spencer Dinwiddie.
He was much happier with his team’s response after that break. Maxie hit a layup on the second opportunity with a triple set up by PJ Tucker, Harris converted a steal into a quickie, and Vaughn called a Brooklyn timeout after just 40 seconds from Rivers.
Harris’ aggressive, zone defense, and greater determination to find Embiid in the middle of the floor and take advantage of the double teams he drew all in a 20-5 Sixers run lifted the team to a 64-56 lead. The Sixers’ pace and energy picked up, too. Tucker made six second chance points on his own during the race and the Sixers finished with another massive advantage in that category – 18-0.
The off-ball spacing is always fluid against a scrambling opponent such as netting. Still, Tucker in the corner and Harris in the dunk spot certainly seemed logical. Tucker refused to jump a single and instead found Harris in for a dunk. The 37-year-old served a similar plate soon after, then helped Harris open the Maxi Three wide into the opposite corner.
The Sixers played the first five minutes and changed the fourth quarter without Embiid and eventually managed to hold on to a five-point lead. While the Sixers focused on creating favorable switches against weaker defenders like Seth Curry, they often ended up struggling to create any key advantages and took strong players. Harden made one of them, draining a step back three times to put the team ahead 74-68. Reed committed one costly error with a backcourt turnover that led to a Curry three, but he fought for extra possessions and converted a layup.
The Sixers (with McDaniels closing over Tucker) continued the netting problem in the fourth. Embiid’s one-on-one defense was pretty late, including on a play where he vigorously contested a miss Dionydi and then gave the veteran guard a WWE-style look. Two possessions later, Embiid volleyed a layup from Johnson.
He saved his best attacking moment in the final minutes as well. Embiid drove in by O’Neale before throwing a huge dunk, digging a lackluster jumper, and assisting on Maxey’s third cornerback for the Sixers’ second straight home win in big style.
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