Tim BontempsESPN5 Minute Read
PHILADELPHIA — It took all of 61 seconds in the third quarter Monday night for Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers to decide he had seen enough.
After watching his team fail to properly run a play he drew up coming out of the halftime break — which followed a lackadaisical overall performance in the first half of Game 2 of their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets — Rivers let his players know how he felt.
“Cursing us out,” star James Harden said matter-of-factly, followed by a laugh, when asked what Rivers said in that huddle. “That’s it. Just cursing us out.
“The first possession, we didn’t run a play that he drew up, for whatever reason. But we got it right.”
Harden was right — the 76ers looked like a totally different team after they left that huddle, outscoring the Nets 24-12 over the final 11 minutes of the third quarter to retake the lead for good. Tyrese Maxey score 33 points and Joel Embiid dominated with 20 points, 19 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 blocks as the 76ers claimed a 96-84 victory and a 2-0 lead as the series shifts to Brooklyn for Game 3 on Thursday.
“I thought we wasted the whole first half,” Rivers said. “Literally just running random [stuff], not trusting our sets.
“First play, we didn’t run it. So I thought we needed to talk about it. And, you know, give them credit. From that point on, I thought our execution was unbelievable.”
Over the rest of the third quarter, the 76ers simply wore down the Nets. Brooklyn pretty successfully executed its game plan overall, getting up 42 3-point attempts — Jacque Vaughn said pregame that he hoped his Nets would shoot at least 40 — and managed to play the possession game to a draw by forcing Philadelphia into 19 turnovers that became 22 Brooklyn points.
But as the third quarter wore on, those double teams on Embiid stopped forcing turnovers and instead forced Brooklyn into giving up one wide-open shot after another. And while Philadelphia started knocking them down, hitting four of the team’s 11 3-pointers on the night in that quarter alone, the 76ers also suffocated Brooklyn’s offense at the other end of the court, holding the Nets to 6-for-18 shooting as Philadelphia took a lead it never would relinquish.
“We got guys to the right space,” Rivers said. “Joel was patient. James was patient. We moved the ball, we got every shot we wanted.
“That was a hard game, because we got outside of ourselves in the first half. I thought we were forcing it. We were trying, nothing selfish, but we’re trying to score all of us, instead of there giving you the answers with their traps. Trust your stuff, trust your spacing, move the ball and the right guys are going to end up with the ball.
“And if we do it enough, eventually, Joel, you’re gonna get one-on-ones, and then you’re gonna dominate the game. And I thought we did that in the second half.”
There might not be a bigger mismatch in these playoffs than Embiid going up against Brooklyn’s undersized frontline, and it showed as this game went along. The Nets kept doubling Embiid until they began getting picked apart in the third quarter. Eventually, that forced them to go to single coverage, and Embiid responded by bulldozing his way to the rim time and again.
Afterward, Embiid said he was quite happy watching his teammates knock down shot after shot, and said if teams keep attacking him the way the Nets did, that’s how the NBA’s two-time reigning scoring leader will continue to operate.
“I think that’s probably why I get double- and triple-teamed a lot,” Embiid said. “A lot of people think I just love scoring the basketball. Which I don’t think is true. I enjoy winning and doing whatever it takes to win.
“Some nights, I might shoot a lot and score a lot. Some nights, I’m gonna get double-teamed and have to make the passes, but I believe in playing the right way. Which is getting your teammates involved, double, triple teams, making sure everybody touching the ball, sees the ball. That’s what I believe in, and it’s fun playing that way. Everybody’s happy. Doesn’t matter if I have four points as long as we score and guys are doing their job and making shots. That makes me happy.”
After Game 1, Vaughn implored the referees to call more travels and defensive 3-second calls on Embiid, and he got at least one of them called on Embiid on a drive against center Nic Claxton in the second half. Embiid took a shot at Vaughn after the game, comparing him to Raptors coach Nick Nurse, twice an Embiid playoff opponent, but said ultimately what changed the game in the second half was Philadelphia sticking together through its struggles early on.
“I saw after the game last time, they kind of took the Nick Nurse route of begging for free throws and calling out the referees,” Embiid said. “They did come out and they got a lot of calls, which I guess it’s good for them.
“But I think we didn’t play our best basketball. But what happened in the second half was we just figured out what worked and we just kept doing it over and over and over. You know, they’re stuck to their game plan, they didn’t make any adjustments and you know, and we just figured that out and just kept playing together.”