The NBA playoffs are finally here. There are interesting series of both sides of the bracket, but I find the No. 3- No. 6 matchups in each conference to be the most interesting. So we’re going to break down six major questions (three for each team) that will matter in Sixers vs. Nets (below) and Blazers vs. Thunder (see here).
1. What’s up with Joel Embiid?
The absolute biggest question surrounding this series — and possibly the only question that actually matters, if the answer is a bad one — centers on Joel Embiid’s health. Embiid has been dealing with a bothersome knee that limited him to playing in just eight of 22 post-All-Star break games, and if he either can’t go or is not full strength, everything else about the series shifts in a completely different direction. He is THE reason the 76ers are where they are, and their trump card against any and all advantages the Nets might have due to their shooting and ability to play in space.
Embiid is unstoppable on the block for almost anybody, but perhaps especially so for Jarrett Allen, who, while an excellent defender overall, does not have the size or the physicality to deal with Embiid on anything resembling a regular basis. He just gets punked down there.
Embiid’s last three games against the Nets looked like this: 32 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists; 33 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists; and 39 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists. Brooklyn does not have a physical answer for him. Not that anybody truly does, but some of the other East squads at least have someone who might be able to make him work. They sent help his way a lot, and while Embiid can be very turnover prone when dealing with doubles, he dished out 16 assists against this strategy.
2. Who guards D’Angelo Russell?
If the 76ers have one weakness defensively, it’s their relative inability to deal with slithery point guards who can score — especially if they’ve got the pull-up jumper and/or floater in their repertoire.
This, of course, is largely because their point guard is Ben Simmons, and he’s 6-foot-11, which means that while he is just as fast as many point guards in the open floor, it’s a bit more difficult for him to change directions quite as quickly as they do in short areas, which allows them to turn the corner or snake their way into the paint on pick-and-rolls. And because the Sixers tend to have Embiid hang back in or around the paint when ball-handlers come around screens, this allows players like Russell to walk their way into a string of pull-up jumpers and (semi-contested) floaters.
Russell had an up-and-down time against the Sixers during the regular season, but his first two games against them (21 points, 6 assists; 38 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) represent the kind of thing that can allow the Nets to steal a game or two off of Philly in this series, and make things more interesting than the Sixers would like. Russell was much less effective against Philly in the two later games, though, and especially in the game they played just a couple of weeks ago, where he shot 6-of-19 and turned the ball over seven times.
Simmons was Russell’s primary defender in that game, but the Nets actually scored really efficiently during that time, with 27 points on 22 possessions, per the Second Spectrum matchup data on NBA.com. That’s obviously an incredibly small sample, but it’s notable that even in a game where Russell struggled overall, he still gave Philly the kind of problems it generally sees when Simmons guards point guards.
The issue is, if you shift, say, Jimmy Butler onto Russell and Simmons onto someone else, the Sixers’ defense tends to take a steep drop-off, as I noted a couple of weeks back. Who Brett Brown decides to use in this matchup, and if he’s at all willing to change course if Russell gets going, will be interesting to watch.
3. Can any of Philly’s bench guys contribute?
When you’re reduced to holding an in-season tournament to figure out if any of your blah backup-wing types can beat out the others and earn playoff minutes, you’re probably not in a good spot. James Ennis’ quad injuries throw even more of a wrench into things.
Mike Scott is presumably going to be the first big off the bench, and he’s solid. T.J. McConnell and Boban Marjanovic are the primary backups at the point and center, respectively, but McConnell tends to fare best in specific matchups and Marjanovic is wildly vulnerable to pick-and-roll scorers like Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie. Can Zhaire Smith or Jonathon Simmons give the Sixers any quality minutes? If so, that would really help a lot.
4. How much of a role will Brooklyn’s zone defense play?
As detailed extensively on this site, the Nets were among the heaviest users of zone defense in the NBA this season.
The Nets also have variations on their zone. There’s a standard 2-3 where everyone is involved and talking, like with the Heat. But there’s also the one-man zone center Jarrett Allen will play on occasion.
“Normally our zone, coach just calls it whenever he feels is best for our defense,” Allen says. “And in terms of me playing the one-man zone … if they have somebody that can’t shoot, then normally I’m trying to help on the ball or something like that.”
When defending a non-shooter, Allen will spend entire stretches of the game not guarding his man, instead just “two-point-nine-ing” over and over again. (That’s when a big man stands in the lane for as close to three seconds as possible without being called for a violation, then darts out to reset the clock before jumping back in again and repeating the process.) It helps the Nets limit penetration because, well, Allen tends to be ridiculously difficult to score on at the rim. Many have tried him, and many — up to and including the King himself — have failed.
Embiid shoots south of 30 percent from 3, so the Sixers would seem like a good team to try out the one-man-zone strategy against. Do that, though, and you open yourself up to just being absolutely destroyed by the dribble hand-off action between Embiid and J.J. Redick that drives so much of the Sixers’ offense. If Allen just sits back in the paint and lets Embiid hand the ball off and Embiid gets even a tiny piece of Redick’s man, it’s over. And if Allen then has to quickly step up on Redick, he’s among the best in the league at reading that help and delivering the pocket pass to Embiid, who will crash his way to the rim.
Going into the standard 2-3 zone and daring Philly to shoot them out of it has some merit as an idea but A. doing so would leave a poor rebounding team incredibly vulnerable on defensive glass; and B. daring a team featuring J.J. Redick (and Tobias Harris) to shoot seems somewhat dangerous. And anyway, much of what the Nets’ zone is designed to limit (pick-and-roll scorers getting a free lane downhill) doesn’t really describe how the Sixers run their offense. Simmons is a far different player than the ones against whom the Nets have generally used this strategy.
5. How small are the Nets willing to play to create space?
We know the Sixers’ greatest advantage in this series, beyond just the sheer talent they have among their best five guys, will likely be the massive size advantage they have over the Nets. A lot of these guys can just overwhelm their Brooklyn counterparts.
Should the Nets counter by going even small and quicker and forcing the larger Sixers to defend in as much space as possible, and try to turn this thing into a track meet? If they’re getting beat up, is Kenny Atkinson willing to put, say, Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and Caris LeVert all on the floor with Russell and Allen? And would that even work against a team as big as the Sixers?
I think it could be an interesting look on both ends. Not only would it provide maximum spacing for Russell and/or Dinwiddie and/or LeVert to run pick-and-rolls with Allen in the middle of the floor, it might actually bait the Sixers into posting up Butler or Harris on one of their wings rather than having Embiid plow his way to the rim or run DHOs with Redick. And the former is far preferable to the latter.
6. Which versions of Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert will we see?
At different times throughout this season, each of these guys looked like Brooklyn’s sure-fire best player. They each suffered long-term injuries, though, and it was during the period where they were both out where Russell first really stepped up. They have each contributed to varying degrees and had several splash games since their respective returns to the lineup, but they have not been nearly as consistent as they were early on.
Brooklyn is going to need one or both of these guys to tap back into the version of themselves that we saw earlier in the season because Russell can’t carry the offensive creation burden by his lonesome. Their ability to create off the bounce would also cause problems for the Sixers in general; forcing both Simmons and Redick to defend slippery ball-handlers could cause some issues, and if Brown decides to start playing games with cross-matches, that could prove advantageous for the Nets in transition.