Ben Simmons, 76ers bounce back with ‘haymaker’ to rout Nets in Game 2April 16, 2019
PHILADELPHIA — By now, Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown is used to not knowing until the last minute whether Joel Embiid can play, how much he can play and how effective he might be when he does play.
But really, what choice does Brown have but to accept it and deal with it?
The Sixers have no chance without Embiid. And now that it's obvious that Embiid's knee is nowhere close to full strength, he needs help against the plucky Brooklyn Nets in this first-round playoff series.
"I’m so far past the anxiety of knowledge in relation to (if he can play)," Brown said. "We’re in a phase and in a stage where we’re buying time. Can we get a win and buy a few more days? Can we get another win and buy a few more days? We might lose, but we’re alive and buy three more days.
"This is just the path that we’re on with Joel."
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Let's just say the Sixers bought themselves some time after burying the Nets 145-123 in Game 2 on Monday to tie the best-of-seven series at 1-1.
Once again, the Sixers didn't know until game time if Embiid would play. And then Ben Simmons attacked the Nets right from the start. So did J.J. Redick. Boban Marjanovic scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half when he filled in for Embiid.
And Tobias Harris sparked the Sixers on a 21-2 run to start the second half, taking a precarious one-point lead at halftime to a 20-point cushion in just four minutes.
None of this was a surprise to Nets coach Kenny Atkinson.
When asked before the game if he expected the Sixers to play with a sense of urgency after dropping the first game at home, he replied: "We expect a haymaker. We know it’s coming. … It’s going to be how are we going to react to it."
Actually, the Sixers delivered two of them. Well, three, if you count Embiid's elbow to the mouth of Nets forward Jarrett Allen in the final minute of the first half. Embiid was whistled for a flagrant foul on the play, and Allen's free throws tied the game at 64-64.
Embiid could laugh about it after the game, which he literally did for about a minute after saying, "I got him pretty good, and I'm sorry about it."
But at the time, there was a sense of dread because the Sixers had started off playing well, and they were only up by a single point at halftime.
Then came the final haymaker to start the third quarter, and the Nets couldn't recover. The Sixers scored 51 points in the third, tying an NBA playoff record for points in a quarter.
"I would describe it as extreme physicality," Atkinson said.
Brown said, "Defensively … it was a fantastic statement."
This is where Brown credited Simmons, not for his offense, even though he finished with a triple-double with 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds, but for his defense on Nets guard D'Angelo Russell. The Nets, after all, made 10 3-pointers in the first half. They made none in the third quarter.
Simmons was determined to make up for his performance in Game 1, when he scored just nine points with three assists and was booed loudly by angry Sixers fans in the 111-102 loss.
Simmons didn't help himself by criticizing those fans for booing.
But all was quickly forgiven when Simmons stole the ball and went in for a dunk to complete that third-quarter run. Then he cupped his hand to his ear to take in the ovation from the crowd.
"I was thinking about the boos from last game," Simmons said.
For his part, Embiid had 23 points with 10 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Before the game, Brown let it slip that Embiid is on a minutes restriction from the team's medical staff. It's easy to see why.
Embiid had sat out 14 of the Sixers' final 24 regular-season games because of his knee. He admitted before the series started that it wasn't getting any better. He played just 24 minutes in Game 1, when the Sixers desperately needed him to play more.
The Sixers had such a big lead after the third quarter that Embiid wasn't needed in the fourth, although he did start the period. Brown quickly pulled him, however, after Embiid was knocked to the floor in the first minute and came up hobbling a bit.
"I think some of Joel’s lack of playing and his inevitable lack of conditioning, which is connected, didn’t let us try to go to him as much as I wished (in Game 1)," Brown said.
The Sixers needed others to help Embiid in Game 2. Their season depended on it.
That hasn't changed even with the lopsided victory. After all, the Nets will gladly head back to Brooklyn with a split in the series, with the next two games at home on Thursday and Saturday.
Embiid's knee won't be markedly better by then, either.
"I was out there playing for my teammates," Embiid said. "I just feel like, just play through the pain and play for them. And try to give whatever I can."
At least Brown knows that Embiid should continue to play going forward. What he has to give, however, is still unknown.
That unknown beats the alternative of not having Embiid at all.
"There’s night, and then there’s day," Brown said. "That’s the truth. It’s Joel Embiid."
Martin Frank writes for the Delaware News Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.
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