The Brooklyn Nets came out with energy and execution, stealing Game 1 on the road from the Philadelphia 76ers.
This was not the way the 76ers were hoping to kick off their postseason experience. Ben Simmons was bottled up by the Nets defense, Joel Embiid struggled from the field, J.J. Redick fouled out, the supporting cast couldn’t buy a 3-pointer and Embiid and Amir Johnson were caught by television cameras checking a phone on the bench during the game.
The Nets, meanwhile, flashed their depth with six different players scoring in double figures and All-Star D’Angelo Russell leading the upset with 26 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. This was always going to be one of the most interesting first-round series but things just got a whole lot more interesting.
What is Philadelphia going to do about Ben Simmons? Before the series started, Jared Dudley told the media that Brooklyn would give Simmons tons of space and dare him to beat them. In Game 1, the “ignore Simmons outside the paint” game plan worked like a charm. Brooklyn sagged off of him nearly every time he touched the ball, cutting off driving and passing lanes and putting an extra defender in the orbit of Joel Embiid in the post. Simmons didn’t seem to have any idea how to adjust and finished with 9 points, 3 assists and 3 turnovers. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a similar player to Simmons, a questionable shooter who would prefer to drive at any opportunity. But he’s figured out how to chew up space and finish over and through the defense, something that Simmons doesn’t do consistently yet. There’s no reason for Brooklyn to change their game plan now, so Brett Brown and Simmons will have to figure out a counter before Game 2, because he’s not going to suddenly start raining jumpers.
This is why Jimmy Butler is here. After some initial friction between Butler and Joel Embiid about touches and style of play, Butler has mostly taken receded into the background of the 76ers. His play has been solid and he’s risen to the occasion when called upon, but it also seemed clear that he was comfortable deferring to Simmons, Embiid and Tobias Harris.
Well, there was no deference to be had in Game 1. The 76ers offense was struggling to hit shots and so Butler took it upon himself to handle the scoring load. A halftime buzzer-beater gave Butler 23 points in the first half and he finished with 36 points on 11-of-22 shooting from the field and 15 free throw attempts. This was the third-most shots he’s attempted since joining Philadelphia. The 76ers are at their best when the offense is more balanced but there will be nights (like tonight) where that just can’t work and having someone like Butler who can get his own shot is the difference between getting blown out and staying in the game.
The Nets are run deep. The emergence of D’Angelo Russell has been the background story for the Nets but Game 1 was the perfect example of just how deep they are. Russell struggled mightily in the first half but Ed Davis, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert picked him up with relentless drives, solid finishing and sweet shooting. That trio finished with 53 points, 23 rebounds and 5 assists off the bench, on 19-of-39 shooting from the field and 5-of-8 on 3-pointers. For reference, the entire 76ers bench scored 26 points. The 76ers may have more talent on their roster but it’s definitely concentrated in their starting lineup and if Brooklyn can continue to leverage their bench advantage this could be a very interesting series.