One thing is certain: Game 2 of this Nets-Sixers series is an inflection point. There’s a chance that we look back on Brooklyn’s 111-102 victory in the opener as an anomaly in the same way we now look back on the Heat’s win in the second game of last year’s first-round series.
There’s also a chance that what we saw in Game 1 was less a fluke and more a culmination of some long-held fears about this Sixers rotation. The disconcerting thing about the loss wasn’t the end result but the lack of obvious fixes.
Heading into Game 2 on Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center, here are four big questions that will need to be answered:
1) Is this the Joel Embiid we are going to see for the foreseeable future?
It didn’t take long for us to see just how legitimate the concerns about the big man’s health were. With the Sixers struggling to keep their head above water, Embiid spent the second half of the second quarter on the bench. Instead of their usual crunch-time lineup, the Sixers played the last three minutes before halftime with Mike Scott and Jonathon Simmons on the court. Whether the problem was his knee, or his conditioning, or, most likely, some combination of the two, if Embiid is going to be operating at 75 percent or worse for the rest of the playoffs, it’s tough to envision a path to the conference finals.
2) Can Tobias Harris rediscover the rhythm he had when the Sixers acquired him?
Harris’ disappearance from the offense has been one of the most significant factors underlying the Sixers’ struggles over the last month or so. He was invisible in the Sixers’ Game 1 loss, attempting just seven shots from the field despite playing a team-high 41 minutes. Just two of those attempts came from three-point range. The big question is whether his lack of scoring opportunities is a chicken thing or an egg thing. Right now, when Harris is shooting, he isn’t making. He’s missed his last 10 three-point attempts and is shooting just 22.5 percent from long range over his last 15 games. Compare that to his first 13 games as a Sixer, when he made 40 percent of his three-point attempts, a figure that was right in line with his output over the last couple of seasons.
If Embiid is not at a place where the Sixers can rely on him to bully the Nets’ undersized frontcourt the way he would at full health, they are going to need somebody besides Jimmy Butler who is capable of playing downhill and creating scoring opportunities in the halfcourt offense. The Sixers acquired Harris with the thought that he could be that kind of player. And he’s shown plenty of flashes of it. It might not be a bad idea to use the first quarter of Game 2 to force him into a more assertive role in an attempt to reestablish the swagger he showed early on in his tenure in Philly.
3) Can the Sixers find a way to make life difficult for Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert?
The Sixers’ struggles against a certain type of guard are well-documented. The Nets happen to have two of them in Dinwiddie and LeVert, who combined for 41 points and seven rebounds in Game 1. In the 19 minutes the duo spent on the court together, the Nets outscored the Sixers 52-34 while averaging 1.3 points per possession. Nobody seemed to have any answers in the immediate aftermath of the loss.
“I just think we’ve got to guard better,” Jimmy Butler said. “I think you’ve got to man up and guard one-on-one. I think that’s what it’s going to come down to in this series. The one after that, the one after that, and the one after that. You know, whoever it may be, myself included, you’ve got to man up and you’ve got to stand in front of your man and try to get a stop.
Problem is, Butler was the only member of the rotation who looked remotely capable of succeeding at that task. The Nets’ game plan wasn’t complicated: Wait for a Sixers switch to create an exploitable matchup, and then attack it. The discouraging thing was how easy they made it look. With Embiid clearly operating at less than 100 percent, the Sixers weren’t able to rely as heavily on his rim-protecting ability as they have in the past. The result was way too many layups that were barely contested. If what we saw out of Embiid is what the Sixers are going to get for the foreseeable future, something drastic needs to change on the perimeter.
4) Can Brett Brown find a way to put Ben Simmons in a position where he contributes in the halfcourt?
It’s no secret that playoff basketball is more of a halfcourt game than regular-season ball. That’s only going to become more acute as the playoffs progress. What we saw out of Simmons in Game 1 was uncomfortably similar to what we saw out of him in last year’s series against the Celtics. There were too many possessions when the Sixers seemed to be playing four-on-five, with Simmons drifting unguarded away from the rim.
With a deeper, more well-rounded rotation, the outlook might not look as bleak as it sounds. But when your top two backcourt options off the bench, T.J. McConnell and Jonathon Simmons, are one-dimensional guards who are equally reticent to shoot from outside 10-12 feet, the options for mixing and matching are limited.