After Cruising to Closeout Clincher, Trip North Awaits

by Brian Seltzer and Lauren Rosen

Recap:

Brett Brown’s message to the 76ers heading into the closeout proposition presented Tuesday was as straightforward in delivery as it was in meaning:

Keep the focus linear, and tune out all the outside noise that's surrounded a hotly contested opening round battle.

Throughout the evening, pretty much the only sounds the Sixers would hear were the repeated snaps of the ball going through the net, and the rounds of raucous ovations from an adoring sellout crowd.

With 20,595 on hand at The Center, the Sixers blew out the Brooklyn Nets, 122-100. The victory clinched for the Sixers their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series with Brooklyn, 4-1.

The Sixers are now bound for the second round for the second time in as many years - a first for the franchise since the 2000 and 2001 playoffs, during Allen Iverson’s heyday.

As for who’s up next? Fittingly enough, it will be another Atlantic Division foe, the very same one the Sixers squared off against in a seven-game epic in the 2001 conference semifinals - the Toronto Raptors, this season’s no. 2 seed.

"We have a team that is slowly coming together," Brett Brown said of the Sixers. "These guys have been great on trying to form a team. This is good - beating Brooklyn and advancing to the second round, this is good. We still have more to do, a lot more to do."

In terms of Tuesday’s rout, the Sixers entered on guard, full of respect, and intent on taking Brooklyn’s spirit.

Racing out to a 14-0 lead, the Sixers not only did that, they took the Nets’ heart, and lastly their season.  

With the Sixers’ defense - one of the key ingredients to their resounding turnaround after a tough Game 1 loss - clicking from the jump, Brooklyn didn’t score its first basket until nearly six minutes had been played in the opening frame.

The Sixers then went on to extend their lead to 23-2 before the stunning quarter came to a close, at which point the gap was 32-15.

It was the eighth time in franchise history the team held an opponent to 15 points or fewer in the first quarter of a postseason game. By intermission, the Sixers’ advantage had swelled to a staggering 29 points, 60-31.

The Sixers' halftime margin marked their largest ever in the playoffs. They also matched the organization’s lowest point total allowed in the first half of a postseason tilt.

For a club that was faced with questions about chemistry and health going into this year’s opening round, Tuesday’s performance provided an emphatic punctuation, a source of further optimism with a challenging second-round opponent on the horizon.

"We just have to take one game at a time," Joel Embiid said Tuesday. "But we understand that we've got all that talent that we need, especially to win it all."

As was the case in the previous tilts Joel Embiid played versus Brooklyn in the series, the big man proved to be a force for which there was no answer. He scored the Sixers’ first six points of the evening, eight of their first 10, and 10 of their first 14 en route to racking up 23 points and 13 rebounds.

The All-Star played only 20 minutes.

The rest of the Sixers’ starting group was sterling as well. Ben Simmons finished with a game-high plus-34 rating (13 pts / 5 reb / 6 ast), while JJ Redick (11 pts) was plus-33 and Tobias Harris (12 pts / 8 reb / 4 ast / 3 stl) and Jimmy Butler (9 pts / 5 reb / 5 ast / 3 stl) were each plus-31.

Up and down the roster, the Sixers received impact defensive contributions. The team stifled Brooklyn to the tune of 26.1% shooting in Tuesday’s first half (12-46) and 2 for 14 from 3-point territory.

The Sixers led by as many as 39 points on a memorable night. Best of all, they left little doubt that this spring, there would be more basketball.

"I think everybody's kind of on that same wave mindset to where we're trying to win a championship," said Simmons.

Tuesday's Game 5 certainly represented a strong step in the right direction.

Click here for a complete box score. 

Worth Noting

Defense Keys First Quarter

The first quarter, it was a doozy. Especially if you were on what the receiving end of what the Sixers were dishing out.

Needing little time to grow their lead to insurmountable depths, the Sixers played terrific defense.

The Nets converted just six of their 23 field goal attempts in the first period. Of their six 3-point shots, only one fell. Brooklyn also gave up six turnovers in the first period, and shared just three assists.

On an individual level, starters D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, and Jared Dudley were scoreless in the first 12 minutes. Jarrett Allen managed one basket.

The Sixers’ defense was that effective, and made that much of a difference. Their success on that end of the floor only got better as the series progressed following a Game 1 loss.

“I think that immediately it forced us into recognizing that we are vulnerable if we don’t play defense like we’ve got to play defense,” said Brett Brown. “I think 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. I thought we came together defensively.”

On the other end of the court, the Sixers connected on 14 of their 26 shots in the first frame.

Four Straight

With four straight wins in tow, the Sixers reflected on the impact that losing Game 1 had on their psyche. For Brown, his club’s answer to the early defeat said it all.

“We responded how I hoped that we would and we should,” Brown said after clinching the series.

With each of the Sixers’ four wins seeing major contributions from each member of the postseason rotation, Joel Embiid recognized Game 1’s role in the team’s timely hot streak and togetherness.

“I look at [Game 1] as a wakeup call, something we needed,” Embiid said.

The Sixers outscored Brooklyn by 64 total points in its four wins. The former’s four-game winning streak represents its longest since a March six-game spurt that included wins over Milwaukee and Boston.

Sights Set High

Now finished his third year at Brooklyn’s helm, head coach Kenny Atkinson led the Nets to a 42-win season, following seasons of 20 and 28 wins apiece in the two years prior.

Addressing the media following a season that exceeded most outside expectations, Atkinson gave the Sixers props. He witnessed firsthand just how good his Atlantic Division adversary can be.

“It’s a hell of a team,” Atkinson said. “They’re going for big things, and I think they can compete for a championship.”

It’s a belief shared by Embiid.

“We think we can win it all — obviously it’s going to take a lot,” Embiid said.

The next step starts this weekend, up North.

@Sixers Social:

What a series for this guy.

Up Next:

The Sixers will face the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Raptors clinched their first-round series over the Orlando Magic Tuesday with a 115-96 triumph at Scotiabank Arena. Like the Sixers, Toronto dropped the first game in the opening round, then won four straight. The Raptors bested the Sixers in the regular season series, 3-1, though all four games were played prior to the trade deadline.

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