For as many things the 76ers did wrong in Game 1, they turned them around in Game 2 on Monday night and walloped the Brooklyn Nets, 145-123, to even the first-round playoff series, 1-1.
The Sixers went from looking like a team with a lot of talent but little else to a team that could be unstoppable if it uses its talent correctly.
Let’s take a look at what changed.
Game 1: Simmons was an absolute non-factor, disappearing on offense. The Nets lack a player who can realistically match up with Simmons, but he deferred, passed up opportunities, never attacked with any purpose, and was dreadful at the free-throw line. All this caused the crowd to relentlessly boo him.
Game 2: There was absolutely no doubt from the first minute that a different Simmons had shown up Monday. He used his athleticism, size, and strength to his advantage, bullying the defense by attacking downhill and not shying from any contact. To see Simmons unafraid and trying is all that Sixers fans wanted from him, and he delivered with an 18-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound triple-double.
“From the jump, I think, it started with Ben,” Tobias Harris said after the game. “His energy with pushing the ball and being aggressive was huge for us.”
Game 1: There were only small flashes Saturday of what the Sixers can do defensively, and they made a young Nets team look like a seasoned roster of veterans with how much they allowed and how little effort they put forth.
Game 2: The difference a smidge of effort makes is insane. Call it whatever you want — energy, determination, a sense of urgency — the Sixers had it and it showed up most on the defensive side. That starts from the top.
Going into halftime, the Sixers held a one-point lead and were already visibly more engaged than they had been in Game 1, but Brett Brown wanted more. The Sixers said their coach was angrier and more impassioned during halftime than they had ever seen him, and they responded with a 51-point third quarter.
“He came in here, said a few cuss words, shocked me a little bit to tell you the truth,” Jimmy Butler said. “But I like it. That’s the type of energy I love. He just made sure everybody did their job.”
By racking up stops, denying everything the Nets wanted, and ramping up defensive communication, the Sixers took complete control of the game. The trickle-down effect after Brown’s expletive-laden halftime speech lit a fire under the Sixers.
“They picked up their intensity defensively,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I thought they did a fantastic job. They got into us. I would classify it as extreme physicality. They denied us, held us, pushed us.”
Game 1: The Sixers were stuck Saturday. After going cold from three-point range, they tried, without any sense of organization or plan, to force dribble drives straight into a waiting Brooklyn defense. When the Nets turned to their zone, the Sixers didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, instead feeding into it and settling for contested shots.
Game 2: Joel Embiid did not drive into three waiting defenders when they gave him room on the perimeter. He was patient and calculating, posting up when warranted, and waiting for the defense to give him the proper lane. When Embiid rested, Boban Marjanovic used every bit of his size and drilled foul-line shots when the defense refused to step out on him.
After the Sixers crumbled under the Nets’ denial of their three-point game in Game 1, they countered with sharp understanding. When Brooklyn overplayed screens and dribble-hand-off action, the Sixers used Simmons as a roller, or Butler as a secondary screener opening up deeper options after a broken play. By not panicking, the Sixers were able to move the ball freely and get more of the team involved.
Game 1: Nothing was working. There wasn’t enough space, no matter what lineup Brown threw at the Nets. And the drop-off between the first and second units was significant.
Game 2: It might seem crazy that James Ennis makes such a difference for the Sixers, but he really does. Brown was able to take Simmons out of the rotation with the return of Ennis, which provided more speed, control and offensive rebounding. Even on a 12-minute restriction, Ennis was a plus-14 during his time on the floor.
Additionally, Brown took T.J. McConnell out of the rotation, making Butler the backup point guard, giving the Sixers a stronger threat who was able to get the rest of the team involved without sacrificing space.
“It’s a difficult decision because T.J. has been a part of our bloodline for a while,” Brown said. “You start looking at the ripple effect of maybe what can others do from a spatial standpoint. James is able to stretch the floor a little bit more. You try to give Jimmy the ball as a legitimate point guard, a point guard when Ben was not on the court.”