PHILADELPHIA — The acquainted blue backdrop, the one with “Playoffs” printed repeatedly in all caps, is again behind the rostrum. But with all of the strain anticipated to pack this Sixers postseason, Joel Embiid, James Harden and Philadelphia’s forged of outdoor shooters appeared to really feel something however pressure all through a wire-to-wire, 121-101 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of their first-round collection Saturday. Connecting on 21-of-43 makes an attempt from past the arc — a franchise playoff file — can definitely suppress the burden of mounting expectations.
Embiid stood patiently as Brooklyn despatched second defender after second defender in his path. With every of his touches across the foul line, some rangy Nets wing scrambled from a brand new spot on the ground, presenting a sport of whack-a mole, and the 7-foot middle routinely raised the ball just like the Statue of Liberty, then fired rockets towards open shooters. Whenever Brooklyn switched his high-screen motion with Harden, Nets middle Nic Claxton would zoom again onto Embiid’s hip for an additional double staff, as if dragged by some magnetic pull.
Embiid solely tallied three assists, however his laser skips to the alternative corners and again above the break usually despatched Brooklyn’s protection right into a reckless rotation, permitting the Sixers to whip the ball into a good cleaner look from distance. And Embiid nonetheless led Philadelphia in scoring with 26 factors.
The 76ers’ Joel Embiid works in opposition to the Brooklyn Nets’ Nic Claxton throughout the second half of Game 1 within the first spherical of the NBA playoffs Saturday in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)
“He’s simply seen it a lot. I believe if something, the teammates round him have been capable of eat off of him,” stated Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn. “They have a bunch of shooters who can knock down pictures. There’s simply one thing you’re going to have to have the ability to surrender going right into a collection, and also you make changes alongside the best way. But you possibly can’t cease all of it, for certain.”
The Sixers have discovered higher success with Embiid combating all that focus from his perch atop the important thing as an alternative of grinding for place on the blocks. “Putting him on the elbow the place he can see it,” head coach Doc Rivers stated. Embiid didn’t know precisely the place the assistance was coming from, however he knew it was coming. Philadelphia drilled for it all through this previous week of observe, with Rivers’ workers grading the staff’s ball motion like umpires calling pitches behind dwelling plate. “Every go was a ball or a strike,” Rivers stated of his staff’s drillwork. “When you throw a whole lot of balls, you miss these pictures. When you throw a whole lot of strikes, you make these pictures.” The coaches even heard P.J. Tucker shouting, “Strike two!” after one in every of his pair of assists in opposition to Brooklyn because the veteran ahead jogged again on protection.
Harden might have seen the largest strike zone of anybody donning Sixers crimson. A flimsy hamstring plagued his ultimate days with Brooklyn earlier than his commerce deadline transfer to Philadelphia final spring, and it appeared to have sapped his explosiveness all through final years’ playoff push. This afternoon, there was a bounce in his legs harking back to the youthful, weaponized Harden who as soon as carried the Houston Rockets to a pair of Western Conference finals.
He drilled 4 step-back triples within the second quarter en path to 23 factors, shedding his man with ease and even sending Spencer Dinwiddie to the ground on one event. “My legs, my physique, really feel highly effective. Feel sturdy,” Harden stated. At one level he performed 13 straight minutes from the tip of the primary and all through your entire second body, cooking to the purpose Philadelphia’s raucous crowd begged for an ill-advised heat-check earlier than the half concluded as an alternative of Harden feeding a wide-open Paul Reed alongside the baseline. In transition, Harden whipped a flurry of pin-point passes to operating mates with spin that may have made a reliever blush. “He’s the most effective playmaker within the league,” Embiid stated. “By far.”
Philadelphia even discovered an adjustment at intermission to sluggish standout Brooklyn swingman Mikal Bridges. The Villanova product performed 19 dwelling video games on this Wells Fargo Center flooring throughout three collegiate seasons with the Wildcats, together with 12 throughout his junior marketing campaign as Villanova’s dwelling Finneran Pavilion underwent renovations, and Bridges appeared fairly comfy attacking Harden and Tyrese Maxey in that opening half. He scored 23 factors on 10-of-16 taking pictures, with few of his jumpers even touching the rim as they splashed via the online. He is so lengthy, Bridges can grasp within the air from mid-range and alongside the baselines and fling attractive fallaways over any smaller defender with out paying them a lot thoughts. “He had a freeway within the first half,” Rivers stated, “within the second half it was a visitors jam.”
The Sixers crowded Bridges as an alternative of dropping off his pick-and-roll possessions. Embiid even hedged out on the perimeter to dam Bridges’ path along with his chest on a number of events. De’Anthony Melton crowded beneath Bridges’ collect as an alternative of attempting to disrupt his sightline. Tobias Harris discovered methods to forestall Bridges from drawing the one-on-one swap with Harden or Maxey he discovered so delectable within the first two quarters.
It’s a secure wager Brooklyn will proceed sending waves Embiid’s means. The Sixers drilling 48% of their 3-pointers isn’t one thing Philadelphia coaches would wager occurring on a nightly foundation, both. The Sixers merely should discover avenues to proceed supplementing Embiid, hoping Harden’s effectiveness continues to spike, as these collection evolve into chess matches and the board begins to shrink. Fifteen video games nonetheless stand between Philadelphia’s true barometer of success, not to mention the sensation of necessity to advance past the second spherical.
“The final purpose is to get to the Finals and win a championship,” Embiid advised Yahoo Sports again in December. “It doesn’t matter if I lose within the first spherical, second spherical, convention finals, that doesn’t imply something to me. There’s nothing to be blissful about, about simply attending to the convention finals or the Finals. You gotta win the entire thing. That’s the purpose. And each single day it’s simply looking for methods I could make that occur.”