The Sixers Finally Close the Gap Between "Should Be" And "Actually Are"
The Sixers look like a team meeting expectations.
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All season long -- and particularly since they made a blockbuster midseason trade, and then another one -- there’s been a ton of talk about what The Sixers Should Be.
The Sixers Should Be able to close out more convincingly against this bad team. The Sixers Should Be able to contain this subpar offense and their pesky lead guards. The Sixers Should Be winning this game at home. And of course, if we really believe that they have four All-Star-caliber players in the starting lineup, The Sixers Should Be able to handle this Nets team pretty easily -- even without Joel Embiid.
Of course, what The Sixers Should Be and what The Sixers Actually Were has not always lined up this season. The team blew big leads late, lost to subpar teams at home, and struggled mightily when missing key pieces of their lineup -- particularly franchise anchor Joel Embiid, who the Sixers were an ecccccch 8-10 without in the lineup this regular season. Moreover, the team has largely just not performed at the caliber of a legit Eastern Conference contender, which is really what The Sixers Should Be after making the sort of all-in moves they made this season.
And before their first-round Nets matchup, there was plenty of talk about how The Sixers Should Be able to win this series, with at least four of the five best players on the floor. But when judging what The Sixers Actually Were this season, could we really even say that? Ben Simmons hadn’t been playing like a franchise leader. Both Jimmy Butler’s play and his general commitment came and went. Tobias Harris had been struggling for a month to perform competently, let alone spectacularly. Joel Embiid was Joel Embiid when he was around, but that was getting less and less frequent -- persistent knee pain and too-late load management was keeping him out of the lineup disturbingly often. If you could feel confident in Brett Brown’s crew actually playing as they Should in this series, you were certainly a more faithful Process Truster than I.
The gap between Should Be and Actually Are was exposed for these Sixers in Game One, in which (aside from a scorching Butler) they came out flat and were handily beaten at home, much to the WFC fans’ vocal consternation. But game two flipped the Jared Dudley-penned script, as Embiid and Simmons were dominant, Harris and J.J. Redick finally woke up, and the Sixers chilled in a garbage-time fourth quarter. However good that game felt, the positive momentum threatened to be undone by Game Three last night in Brooklyn, in which Joel “Gametime Decision” Embiid was unexpectedly ruled out at the last minute, in favor of a Greg Monroe who was probably as surprised as anyone to actually be on the Sixers playoff roster. It was the truest test for these Sixers: Could they play like the team with three of the four best starters on the floor, and beat the Nets as they Should Be able to do?
And as you probably know by now if you’re not still in the midst of a Monroe-induced rage blackout, the answer was a resounding Yes. The Sixers seized control of this game midway through the first, and even though the Nets made runs here and there, Philly never really let go of their hold. As the fourth quarter began to tilt increasingly Sixers and time started to run out for Brooklyn, Simmons knifed through the Nets’ D for an uncontested slam that basically put the interrobang on this one. The Sixers had soundly outplayed the Nets. For at least one game, they Actually Were what we thought they Should Be.
And mostly, it was because of the guys who were supposed to elevate us all along. Redick had perhaps his most productive playoff game as a Sixer, struggling to start but eventually posting 26 points on 7-17 shooting, including 5-9 from deep and nine trips to the line -- all without getting burned too badly on defense. Butler had a middling night from the field, missing all three of his three-pointer attempts, but still powered his way to 16 points on 6-13 shooting, to go with seven assists, two steals and just one turnover, generally playing connector in the half court and preventing us from needing to give T.J. McConnell any consequential minutes.
More encouragingly, Tobias Harris finally had his breakout game. And not a breakout game like Game Two, where he struggled for most of the first half but finally located his stroke as the game grew increasingly out of reach for the Nets in the third and fourth. In this one he was blistering throughout, buoying the Sixers’ offense in the first half with his locked-in shooting, eventually ending with a playoff-career-high 29 points on 11-19 FG -- led by a jaw-dropping 6-6 from three, including a sprawling attempt of a broken play in the fourth that might’ve saved this one from slipping away. And even with his sparkling scoring numbers, his most impressive work was probably on the glass, where he battled his way to 16 hard-fought boards, with our usual best rebounder out and the Nets feasting on second-chance opportunities early.
It might’ve been Harris’ most impressive performance as a Sixer, but the game’s ultimate statement was of course made by a perma-smirking Ben Simmons. All year long, we’ve wanted him to step up with Joel Embiid out and carry this team like a future superstar should -- something he hasn’t always been able to do with the limitations of his game. But last night, those flaws proved thoroughly inconsequential, as Simmons posted a hyper-efficient 31 points on 11-13 shooting -- including 9-11 from the stripe -- while handing out nine assists (would’ve been more if Moose hadn’t been so fumbly), playing stellar defense and just generally making the right decision and carrying this team as needed. If you wondered if Simmons was doomed to just being that guy from Game One and the Celtics series for the entirety of his playoff life -- never a fair judgment anyway given his age and inexperience -- last night should’ve given you a glimpse of what he’s truly capable of. (Thanks to the Nets’ chrome-domed airball-jacker for his help with that, btw.)
But more important than any individual Sixers performance last night was that the team, on the whole, just looked really, really good last night. They played hard and competed consistently on both ends, they maintained composure throughout and didn’t rack up a ton of unnecessary turnovers, they shared the ball and the glory. The Nets didn’t play their best, but they didn’t play their worst, either -- outside of a couple missed shots and arguable whistles, there’s not a particularly compelling argument to be made that this was just an off night for them and they’ll bounce back pretty easily next game. From where I was sitting in the Barclays Center upper deck, it looked fairly clearly like the Sixers won this game because they were the better team.
And if you’re a Nets fan, that’s some bad, bad news. As encouraging a performance as Game One was for your squad, you just lost convincingly at home to a team missing their best player and primary matchup advantage -- one who replaced him with a guy who barely played for us this season and maybe just sucks, no less. That’s tough stuff to swallow for a team that now has to play perfectly at home and win an extra one on the road to advance. And while the Sixers are by no means out of the hipster woods yet in Brooklyn -- especially with Embiid’s status moving forward now a big ol’ question mark -- they’ve now played at their highest level this season for two games in a row, and proven that even in JoJo’s absence they’re still a :snort emoji: to be reckoned with. If they keep this up, there’s no telling how good they Should Be from here.