The Embiid-less Sixers get ready for the tip-off of Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets; photo by Ky Carlin/Sixers Wire

The Sixers (3-0) stayed in Brooklyn for a matinee Game 4 with the Nets (0-3) on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to finish off a sweep and advance to the second round of the playoffs. Brooklyn wanted to stave off elimination. Tobias Harris stepped up in Joel Embiid’s absence to lead the Sixers to victory, 96-88.

Before we get to the action, some context.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid, who has a sprained right knee.

The news came down on Friday night, courtesy of ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne. He appeared to hyper-extend the knee contesting a Cam Johnson shot at the rim in Game 3. He grabbed the knee and winced before making his way back up the court, wearing the pain in his body language. Embiid stayed in for the remainder of the affair, even recording a game-saving block on Spencer Dinwiddie in the final moments of regulation.

According to Wojnarowski and Shelburne, Embiid returned to Philadelphia on Friday to get an MRI. According to Doc Rivers on Saturday, Embiid expressed that he felt pain behind the knee immediately after Game 3 ended, which prompted concern. As for what’s next, the reporting seems to be a mixed bag. The ESPN reporting stated that there was optimism that Embiid could return to the lineup “as soon as early next week”. But, during Game 4, Allie LaForce reported on the TNT broadcast that Philadelphia was hoping for a return “mid-to-late next week”. Then, after Game 4, Rivers reportedly said that the chances of Embiid being ready to play by the start of the second round were “50 percent at best”

That all translates to “there’s a lot of uncertainty”. And, quite frankly, that is understandable. Sprains involve swelling and pain, and there’s not always a set timetable for those symptoms to subside. That the reporting suggests that this won’t be a multi-week ordeal indicates that this isn’t an extremely serious injury. Nonetheless, sprains require treatment and rest. Time will tell, but the Sixers certainly have to be grateful to have at least a week off before the start of the second round.

Danuel House Jr. missed the game with a non-Covid illness.

Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Harris, PJ Tucker, and Paul Reed.

The Nets were without the services of Ben Simmons, who will miss the playoffs with a nerve impingement in his back.

Jacque Vaughn started Spencer Dinwiddie, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Nic Claxton.

Likes

Game 4 started and ended with Harris. And that’s not something I’ve had the opportunity to write at all this season. When the Sixers couldn’t get anything going early in the first quarter, it was Harris who stemmed the tides of the failing offense. He used pure strength and footwork against some of Brooklyn’s best defenders. Harris finished a difficult righty layup over Claxton on a switch. He got to his sweet spots in the mid-post, pivoting into turnaround jumpers over Bridges and Johnson.

After silencing the Nets with a few jumpers in the second quarter, Harris led the charge that gave the Sixers the lead in the third quarter. The vehicle, as has become Harris’ signature, was bully ball in the post. He backed Johnson down once again, draining a fadeaway out of the mid-post over his contest. He later took Dinwiddie to the weight room to give the Sixers a three-point lead.

Harris put a bow on his series with eight points in the fourth quarter. Just as he’d done all game long, no. 12 stuffed smaller Nets into a locker. He bodied Dinwiddie twice. The first time, he got the roll and the foul on a 14-footer. The second time, he laced a turnaround jumper in the paint to put the Sixers up by nine points with less than five minutes to play. Then, finally, the series knockout punch. He laced a catch-and-shoot three in the right corner off of a De’Anthony Melton kick-out in the short roll. That put the Sixers up by 14 points — their biggest lead of the game — with less than two minutes to play.

Often maligned for underperforming his max contract, Harris has been a gem for Philadelphia in this series. He played the role of swingman to near perfection. His decision-making was remarkably efficient, quickly shooting, driving, or getting off the ball when it came his way. He averaged 20 points on just 15 field goal attempts, a portrait of shooting efficiency relative to shot volume. Harris added gasoline to the fire when the Sixers found themselves on big runs in this series. And in Game 4, he found himself wearing the superhero cape. The ball was often in his hands in crunch time. No sweat, he just went to his bread and butter.

And we haven’t even gotten to the defensive side of the ball yet. Harris was there to take on any assignment Rivers and company sent his way, regardless of scheme. He chased Bridges around the floor, eating up space and offering his best effort to contest the rangy wing’s high release point. Harris also played a significant role in Philadelphia’s team defense in this game.

He was there to prey on some errant Brooklyn passes, ending Nets possessions and getting the Sixers into transition offense. And when the Sixers found themselves making a move to take control in the third quarter, it was Harris who helped tie loose ends with great footwork. He stayed in front of the ball and forced Brooklyn to get looks elsewhere.

This series was a good practice run for what Harris is going to have to do in the second round and beyond. The Sixers will ostensibly face the Boston Celtics next. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will pose new challenges, particularly in the halfcourt setting. But, Harris was more than up to the task of keeping Bridges, Johnson, and whoever else at bay in this series. A nice warmup for the heavy lifting he’s likely going to do on defense going forward.

Harris wasn’t the only Sixer to step up in the guts of the game. A recipient of scrutiny for playoff spirals of the past, Melton played the best 12 minutes of offense he’s played all season long in the fourth quarter. He stuck three triples in the frame, including one curling to the left wing on an out-of-bounds play to extend the Sixers’ lead to seven points and pack a punch to Brooklyn’s gut.

But, Melton didn’t just impact the offense with his shooting. He also served as a connector in the fourth quarter. Some of Philadelphia’s best offense over the 48 minutes came in the final quarter. Melton transported the ball through space, catching out of the short roll and making decisions in the middle of the floor. He connected the two sides of the court, serving as a vessel of ball movement after stickiness junked up Philadelphia’s offense in the first half.

Of course, the Sixers’ efforts in the fourth quarter might not have mattered had they not laid the groundwork in the third quarter. Things started to open up for Philadelphia when the Sixers played with pace in the third quarter. The culprit of that was Harden, who decided to advance the ball ahead to Maxey in transition. He used his speed to get the Nets in rotation early in the shot clock, setting the table for better opportunities later in the possession if Maxey couldn’t score on his own. The Sixers finally got some good looks, and they got there by taking advantage of a defense that wasn’t set.

But, those run-outs don’t happen if Brooklyn makes shots. The defensive side of the court was just as critical to the Sixers fighting back and winning this game as the offensive side was. Philadelphia made some great rotations when the Nets moved the ball. Helpers were in the right spots, denying dribble penetration or vacuuming up space when the ball found shooters. When Brooklyn tried to free its best options with screens, the Sixers made clean switches to deny openings. If Bridges, Dinwiddie, or someone else tried to take matters into their own hands, individual defenders were up to the task. They matched the footwork, beating the Nets to spots and denying space to operate. Philadelphia simply swarmed Brooklyn. Possessions that didn’t end in missed shots ended in turnovers. The Nets have zero individual shot-creation in the halfcourt setting, and the Sixers exposed that with a bright spotlight.

As ugly as Game 4 and this series were, the Sixers scrapped once again. The story was different in all four games, and that’s not really something you could’ve said about previous iterations of this franchise. Most impressive of all was that the Sixers faced more adversity than the simplicity of not having the likely MVP available. The Sixers have had open looks all series because of the extra attention Embiid commands. They haven’t had to face a straight-up coverage much at all. Saturday offered a stark contrast, Embiid not there to take on double- and triple-teams. That’s not an easy adjustment to make after three games of open shots against a defense that was helping off so much. But, just as they have all season, the Sixers fought through it and found a way to win.

It may not matter in the end. The season may end at the exact same checkpoint it always has. But, that toughness, that will to battle through adversity and adjust on the fly, is a pillar of why you’re right to think this team can be different than teams of the recent past. Proving that you have more than one way to win games is a championship trait. As ugly a series as this one was at times, as much as I believe the Sixers have to be worlds better and more consistent to make it out of the second round, that’s a significant reason for optimism about what they’re capable of doing. 

Dislikes

I can appreciate that the task at hand becomes inherently much more difficult when the guy that has faced double- and triple-teams through the first three games of the series. It’s not so easy to get good looks when that fulcrum that simply has to make quick passes to give his teammates a four-on-three advantage in the halfcourt isn’t available. Having said that, the Sixers’ offensive processes were mostly dreadful in the first quarter.

The best thing they had going was Harris post-ups. And credit to him for recognizing that his team was drawing dead and stepping up to supply a couple scores. But, there was a lot of Harden isolation. Letting him go one-on-one this series has skewed somewhere between discouraging and downright bad. There was Melton trying to create for himself off the dribble against a mismatch. We know there’s not much obstacle navigation skill in his handle. Those possessions yielded low-quality attempts, like turnaround midrange jumpers from a guy who hasn’t taken shots like that all season.

In fact, the Sixers abandoned offensive structure for most of the game, quite frankly. Having two dynamic guards like Harden and Maxey should license you to run small-small actions, even if it does nothing more than pose a trick question for the opposing defense. The Sixers should feel even more empowered by Maxey’s becoming a catch-and-shoot marksman on the perimeter. But, there was none of that. I didn’t catch one slipped or set ball screen from either guard for the other. I didn’t see any ghost screens, which would be an easy way to test Brooklyn’s switches in a way that could redeem open threes on the wings for Maxey.

That isn’t the only way to run offense, though. The issue with which I came away was that the offense was reduced to dribbling the life out of possessions and getting terrible looks against the pressure of the shot clock. It wasn’t just Harden doing it, either. There were countless possessions in which there were three guys positioned high on the floor with the ball by the mid-court logo and less than 10 seconds on the clock. The rock stuck all game long, and it was a significant reason why Philadelphia shot worse than 40 percent from the field.

Harden was the other reason the Sixers didn’t bury the Nets until late in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, his production wasn’t bad. You’ll take a near triple-double of 17 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.67:1, from your point guard any day of the week. But, there’s no way around it, his two-point shooting was abhorrent. It’s been the case all series, which is even more concerning. He can stick a 15-foot jumper without issue, he can drill a three with ease. But, Harden getting to the rim was a no-value possession in this game. He had no problem breaking the front line of defense, snatching ankles and cracking the paint with change-of-pace dribble moves and healthy burst. It was when Brooklyn timed its helpers to slide towards the rim at the last second or the de facto rim-protector stepped up that Harden found trouble.

Do I think there were fouls that didn’t get called? Sure. Did he flat-out smoke a handful of layups? Absolutely. Any degree of resistance up close threw Harden’s touch at the rim off. That’s a problem that I’ll dive into at a later time, but you almost wanted to look for any hint that his skills were being sucked out of his body Space Jam style. Harden went from driving with confidence and power to inexplicably rattled as soon as a defender stepped toward him.

The issue with Harden’s blown layups is two-fold, really. First, the obvious. Philadelphia is getting zero points out of shots that should be automatic two points. Second, layups usually come with multiple defensive players already ahead of the play because they’re higher on the court. So, that Harden couldn’t convert layups kept the ball active with multiple Nets sprinting ahead of the pack the other way. It was easy transition offense for Brooklyn. You can make an easy case that smoking those easy shots is a four- or five-point swing in favor of the opposition.

Claxton might as well have tried grabbing the Sixers’ limbs and snapping them in half because the officials let him do anything he wanted to in this game. Reed took the brunt of it, rightfully dinged for fouls on Claxton on Brooklyn’s end but drawing no such judgments from the referees on more egregious contact on Philadelphia’s end. Was a bad two games in Brooklyn from the law-keepers.

The Sixers will now get an extended rest as they await the result of the Atlanta-Boston series. The Celtics lead the Hawks, 2-1. Game 4 is on Sunday. The longer the Hawks can hang in, the better for the Sixers. They need all the time off they can get for Embiid to nurse his sprained knee.

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