NEW YORK — The Brooklyn Nets’ biggest nightmare came to life at the worst possible time, and it wasn’t just the crowd-quieting clinic the Philadelphia 76ers put on in Game 3 of their first-round series, a 131-115 win.
Beating the Nets without Joel Embiid isn’t a massive feat, considering the 76ers’ edge in talent, but what’s scary is the how — the fact the 76ers look to be growing into a cohesive unit.
Assuming this series takes its shape and the 76ers handle their business, it’s the rest of the Eastern Conference that should be paying close attention to the clear and present threat. Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler looks less like mercenaries and more like integral pieces finding comfort.
“Momentum,” Nets veteran Jared Dudley told Yahoo Sports. “That team, every game should get better because of the chemistry coming together. They were a poised, veteran team. Tobias hit big shots, Jimmy [made plays]. Any time we got on a run, Ben [Simmons] got something easy.”
Embiid’s bothersome left knee injury could be the only thing that keeps the 76ers from reaching their potential, but in the moment, the extra space from Embiid’s absence opened up opportunities.
Simmons was Public Enemy No. 1 in Brooklyn, courtesy of his “It’s coming from Jared Dudley” remark when Dudley stated Simmons struggles in the half-court. Simmons was an easier target when Embiid’s absence was declared as the crowd wouldn’t get its pound of flesh after Embiid laughed about his elbow to Jarrett Allen, and Embiid reiterating his apology to Allen in the pregame took some steam from the situation.
But Simmons appears to like playing the villain, first trolling Dudley with a smirk when Dudley airmailed a triple in the first half and relishing in the boos before scoring 31 with nine assists.
“Obviously, it fueled the fire for him, playing well,” Dudley said. “You gotta look at the full quote. The question was, ‘How are we gonna slow him down?’ To get him in the half-court, where I believe he’s average compared to where he is in transition.”
Confusion aside, Simmons found something in the Nets’ defense or his game that has resulted in two straight banner performances that could close the book on this series.
“A lot was just him,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “I thought it was one of Ben’s most dominant games. I thought Ben was exceptional. They tried fouling him. He didn’t miss a free throw. When you look at his confidence, just the organic plays, I give Ben all the credit, we needed it all tonight.”
Talent-wise, you see why the 76ers are the most explosive first five this side of the Bay Area. And if Embiid’s knees are ticking time bombs, having Harris and Butler is wholly different than last year’s squad, one that desperately needed each other to create shots.
“In Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, you have three elite, dribble-up guys. People that can rebound the ball and go themselves,” Brown said. “That’s 2019 modern-day basketball, multiple players who can take off — rebound first, but take off.”
They handled the emotional spurts without allowing the atmosphere to get under their skin. Caris LeVert gave the Nets a jolt with a 19-point second quarter to make the spread manageable, then D’Angelo Russell got loose in the fourth to keep the visitors from truly running away.
But it was only temporary and the 76ers rode it out. If it wasn’t Harris running to open spots beyond the arc, it was Simmons again darting through the lane for long gallops and finishes that made you blink twice to make sure you were in Milwaukee, not Brooklyn.
It was Dudley’s worst fear, that this team’s star power could work together to erase all doubt and negate the Nets’ team-first advantage. If everything is clicking — a big if — what team in the East is better suited to hit you from all angles than these guys, especially if Harris hits six threes and JJ Redick goes 5-of-9 from there? “You want to put them in positions where the game is close, who gets the last shot, or when they’re down a little bit and put pressure on these shots,” Dudley told Yahoo Sports. “The last few games, it’s been free-flowing motion. Once you have Ben struggling and now he’s aggressive, it makes it a lot easier for them.”
The only hope is to make the 76ers play tight, but they seemed quite loose in Brooklyn. In a huddle, Butler demonstratively went to the coaching staff to make suggestions on defensive coverages, and later, Butler, Harris and Redick designed something on the fly as Brown listened without interruption.
“It was high level. Pros talking to pros. I thought they were exceptional,” Brown said. “We’re starting to understand what we’re trying to achieve.”
Simmons again was undeniably masterful, sharing center stage with the man who relished this homecoming in Harris, who is from New York. After his fourth triple, Harris, the quiet 76er, turned to the crowd and unleashed a smile that was as telling as the rhythm he was able to enjoy without Embiid.
“Toward the end of the regular season, we really didn’t play that well without Joel,” Harris said. “Hearing that he wasn’t playing, [it was] a little added motivation for us as a group.”
The final piece in this current setup is figuring a way to make Harris as productive with Embiid on the floor as he is in this free-flowing setup. Since Harris’ trade-deadline arrival, four of his five highest-scoring games have been with Embiid out. The 29 points he scored Thursday were more than is total in Games 1 and 2 combined.
“I felt good. Just came in, with Joel down, all the scoring options we have here, just had to be aggressive from the start,” Harris said. “Had good looks throughout the game. Just let it fly and it felt good to see it go in, to stay confident the whole game. Personally and for myself, we were pulling for one another and embracing each other on the floor. It was big for us.”
As Harris entered a back hallway before his news conference, team personnel complimented him on his big night. Without missing a beat, Simmons had to throw some cold water on it.
“He was just all right,” he said.
But like a couple days ago, Simmons couldn’t hold his laughter. He knows they may be on the verge of something special.
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