The Philadelphia 76ers have the most talented starting lineup this side of Oakland, five guys who can beat you in a bunch of different ways.
Ben Simmons is a monster of a point guard. J.J. Redick is one of the best shooters in NBA history. And Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are the kind of versatile perimeter players that every team is looking for.
But, even with the mid-season additions of the latter pair, the Sixers still depend on one guy a lot more than any of the others. They still go as Joel Embiid goes. And in Game 1 of their first round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, Embiid did not go very well. The Nets took advantage, home-court and overall, with a 111-102 victory.
Still dealing with a knee issue that kept him out of 14 of the Sixers' 24 games after the All-Star break, Embiid struggled to get up and down the floor. He finished with a looks-pretty-good line of 22 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and five blocks, but wasn't nearly as dominant as he had been previously against Brooklyn, when he averaged 30 points on 60-percent shooting in the regular season series.
Things started out well enough. Getting the ball inside, Embiid drew four fouls on the Nets and scored seven points in the first 3 1/2 minutes of Game 1. But the "getting the ball inside" part was the key, and that didn't happen nearly enough after those first few minutes.
Over the remainder of Game 1, Embiid caught the ball within 15 feet of the basket just 12 times. And he either made a shot or drew a foul after 11 of those 12 catches. Nets starting center Jarrett Allen was helpless in trying to deal with Embiid's superior size and strength.
But 12 catches near the basket wasn't enough. Twice as often, Embiid caught the ball beyond or in the vicinity of the 3-point line. In stark contrast to his interior success, only five of those 24 outside catches resulted in a score for the Sixers.
Embiid shot 5-for-9 in the paint and 0-for-6 outside it. He went 0-for-5 from 3-point range in the first 14 minutes of the game and then got hesitant.
The Sixers couldn't get Embiid the ball inside, in no small part because he couldn't get inside himself. Sluggish and seemingly not in great shape, he was almost always the last man down the floor on offensive possessions. So he kept catching the ball as a trailer 25 feet from the basket.
Embiid did shoot 5-for-7 from 3-point range in the last two regular-season meetings between these two teams. But over the full season, Embiid had an effective field goal percentage of just 41 percent on shots outside the paint. That ranked 143rd among 146 players who attempted at least 300 shots from the outside. The Nets will happily take him shooting the ball from the perimeter, and that's how they defended him on Saturday.
The soft coverage on Embiid can provide an opportunity for Redick. If Embiid's defender is in the paint, there's nobody to help when he executes a dribble hand-off with an aggressive Redick looking to shoot. But the Brooklyn guards did a good job of fighting through those handoff screens and keeping Redick from getting free too often. He shot just 2-for-7 (1-for-4 from 3-point range) in Game 1 and the Nets more often took advantage of him on the other end of the floor.
Game 2 is Monday at 8 ET (TNT). If the Sixers can't count on a healthy Embiid, they need a more clear Plan B.
The Nets might also be happy if the Sixers don't run that much pick and roll. Brooklyn was a slightly better than average defensive team this season, with a scheme that tried to force ballhandlers to shoot between the restricted area and the 3-point line. That scheme can be taken advantage of by ballhandlers who can shoot well off the dribble. The only player who scored more points against Brooklyn than Embiid this season was, not coincidentally, Kemba Walker.
Brooklyn gave up a league-high 21.6 points per game to pick-and-roll ballhandlers, according to Synergy play tracking. But the Sixers are not a pick-and-roll team. In fact, only the Warriors averaged fewer pick-and-roll ballhandler possessions than Philadelphia (13.1 per game).
Jimmy Butler had some success in the pick and roll in Game 1, scoring 15 points on 12 ballhandler possessions. But the Sixers primary playmaker (Simmons) is not a shooter, and if he's on the floor while somebody else is running pick and roll, Simmons' defender can help in the paint.
A staggering issue
The Sixers' two most-used lineups were a plus-19 in 22 minutes in Game 1:
- Their starting group was a plus-7 in just 9.4 minutes.
- A lineup of Butler, Harris, T.J. McConnell, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic was a plus-12 in 12.5 minutes.
But the game was lost in the Sixers' transitional lineups. All other Philly lineups were outscored by 28 points in about 26 minutes in Game 1.
The Sixers' starters can be impossible to match up against. But because Philly coach Brett Brown likes to have at least two starters on the floor at all times, the minutes in which all five starters are on the floor are limited.
Now, that 9.4 minutes is exceedingly low. With the gimpy Embiid in pain, he played just 24:15 on Saturday, far less than you would normally ask of your most important player in a playoff game. Redick, meanwhile, fouled out in less than 23 minutes of playing time.
Still, staggering the starters means that the Sixers will have reserves on the floor for most of the game. And that's when Philly pays the price for sacrificing depth in the Butler and Harris trades. With Redick in foul trouble and James Ennis out with a quad contusion, the Sixers called on Jonathon Simmons, a player who ranked 273rd in effective field goal percentage among the 274 players who attempted at least 300 shots this season.
In Game 1, the Sixers were outscored by 16 points in 11:26 with Simmons on the floor.
Best bench in the East?
The Brooklyn reserves, meanwhile...
- Spencer Dinwiddie: +17 in 32:15
- Jared Dudley: +16 in 27:52
- Ed Davis: +28 in 25:07
- Caris LeVert: +18 in 23:02
This was clearly LeVert's best game since his return from a nasty leg injury. He scored 23 points on 8-for-18 shooting, connecting on all three of his 3-point attempts. He's a slippery guard who can get to the paint and to the line when he's feeling confident, especially against this Sixers' defense.
"There's a lot of matchups," LeVert said, "that we like to exploit."
Dudley took some credit for LeVert's improved play.
"We threw him in the starting lineup," Dudley said of LeVert's initial comeback. "He was trying to find his rhythm. At that time, I wasn't even playing, getting DNPs. I remember telling coach to let me play with him, get him more minutes, more touches, more screens. And I think he just figured it out naturally. He got in more of a rhythm moving to the second unit."
The numbers back Dudley up. With Dudley on the floor after his return, LeVert averaged 18.8 points per 36 minutes, shooting 42 percent, with a free-throw rate of 29 attempts per 100 shots from the field. With Dudley off the floor, he averaged 15.0 points per 36 minutes, shooting 38 percent, with a free-throw rate of just 19 attempts per 100 shots from the field.
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