After wrapping up his usual batch of post-practice free throws, James Ennis III strode across the end line and disappeared into the courtside weight room like the ghost of a Gilded Age ballplayer into a cinematic field of corn. In his wake, a Sixers media relations staffer who had been dispatched to retrieve him quickened his pace, reemerging a few moments later with the 28-year-old wing at his side.
It had been a premature exit, but an understandable one. Thirty-six hours removed from an emphatic 145-123 victory over the Nets that evened their first round playoff series at one game apiece, the Sixers offered the assembled media no shortage of stories to pursue. When Ennis boarded the team bus later that afternoon for the short trip north in advance of Thursday’s Game 3, his fellow passengers would include an All-Star center who was battling tendinitis in his left knee, an All-Star point guard who on Wednesday was the subject of an unflattering story in the New York Daily News, and a longtime coach who everyone more or less agrees must win three out of his next five games to have any chance at keeping his job.
Truth be told, Ennis was never supposed to be here, even before a pair of traumatic blows to his right quadriceps left him unable to perform the most rudimentary of competitive movements without a jolt of crippling pain. Less than two months earlier, when the Sixers were igniting talk of another NBA super team with their blockbuster trade for Tobias Harris, Ennis was in Sacramento, logging his 10th straight game of 20-plus minutes for a Houston Rockets team that was in the midst of reestablishing itself as a legitimate Western Conference contender. Needless to say, when the Rockets traded the veteran journeyman to the Sixers the following day, the deal flew so far under the radar that it nearly skimmed the ground.
Yet, there Ennis was on Wednesday afternoon, his bearded cheeks and wiry frame rising from the center of an amorphous half-circle of microphones and cameras and digital voice recorders. In different circumstances, on a different team, his 12 minutes of action against the Nets on Monday night would indeed be the afterthought to which it has been reduced. But with the Sixers needing three wins in five games against a team that has already beaten them in three of six this season, Ennis’ surprising return from injury might well be decisive.
“I think the inclusion of James Ennis may be more than others might truly understand,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.
That’s not at all hyperbolic when you consider a series of essential facts. In Game 1, the Sixers’ first defensive wing off the bench was Jonathon Simmons. In the 11 minutes he played, the Nets outscored the Sixers by 16 points. In Game 2, that role belonged to Ennis. In the 12 minutes he played, the Sixers outscored Brooklyn by 14.
When Ennis checked into the game for the first time late in the first quarter, the Sixers held a 20-15 lead, in large part because of the job Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons were able to do to prevent the Nets’ electric backcourt from creating mayhem inside 15 feet. For the final 5:31 of the period, Ennis’ role was to maintain that performance, first in place of Simmons, and then in place of Butler. At the end of the quarter, the Sixers still held a 34-28 lead (the only reason the Nets were that close was a trio of deep, tip-your-cap three-pointers).
The third quarter unfolded in similar fashion. When Ennis checked in with 6:09 left, Nets were still a scoring flurry away from climbing back into an 89-72 game. That would have sounded like a daunting proposition even 24 hours earlier. When Ennis left a game against the Hawks on April 4 after taking another blow to his quad, the Sixers announced that he would be sidelined for at least two weeks, putting his availability for any part of the first round in significant doubt. So it came as a surprise when the team upgraded him to a game-time decision in advance of Game 2.
“I was ahead of schedule, luckily, with the training staff here, and I did a lot of extra work on myself at home to get my quad a lot stronger,” Ennis said.
With Ennis bringing his impressive blend of energy, athleticism, and positioning off the bench, the Sixers limited the Nets’ backcourt to just nine points over the final six minutes of the third quarter, a key factor in their 27-15 run to end the period.
Looking ahead to Game 3 in Brooklyn on Thursday night, Ennis’ sudden presence in the rotation is as good of a reason as any to think we will not witness a repeat of Game 1. While he was on a minutes restriction of 12 minutes in his first game back, that cap should increase as the series progresses.
“The belief is and the intent is that we’re gonna see more of him, that he will be healthier to play more minutes if that is what I choose,” Brown said.