BROOKLYN – Philadelphia’s season-long spending spree created a pair of contrasting roster dynamics as the Sixers prepared to face the Nets in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Acquiring Jimmy Butler in November 2018 and Tobias Harris in February zapped Philadelphia of much of its depth, jettisoning contributors Robert Covington, Wilson Chandler, Dario Saric and Landry Shamet. The Sixers' moves created a dicey rotation for head coach Brett Brown, yet as Game 3’s 131-115 win illustrated, the pair of trades may also be the leading reason for Finals optimism in Philadelphia.
It was Harris’s time to take the spotlight in Thursday’s victory. He finished with 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting from the field, adding 16 rebounds and four first-half threes. Harris is the most malleable of Philadelphia’s star talent, a quality outside shooter and an efficient slasher. He went 6-of-6 from three after shooting 39.7% from beyond the arc in the regular season. Butler, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons need the ball to contribute. Harris’s lack of usage may be among his biggest strengths, and it fueled Philly on Thursday.
“Tobias was our bell-ringer tonight,” Brown said postgame. “You start looking at Tobias’s rebounds and what he did from the three-point line ... I’m proud of him. He’s good people and he was fantastic tonight.”
There are moments when the Sixers look more functional without Embiid. They pushed the ball with force, leading to multiple transition threes from JJ Reddick and a slew of fast-break layups. Simmons is particularly unburdened sans Embiid. The lane is clear in the half court and he has a directive to push the pace. It’s notable that Simmons’s best nights come separate from Embiid, running the offense as the unquestioned focal point. The Game 3 win was no different as Simmons cruised to 31 points on 13 shots. One of the league’s most unique players had more than enough room to spread his wings.
“We had a tough time with their pace,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said. “They came out, Brett was telling them to push it, and our transition defense wasn’t up to snuff ... When [Simmons] gets in transition they’re hard to stop, we have to do a better job there. It’s one of the keys to the series. ”
It’s not all roses without Embiid, though. Greg Monroe is on his third team of the year for a reason, a plodding relic who posted a team-worst minus-nine in 25 minutes. Boban Marjanovic is massive and more skilled than you’d think, but a foul machine nonetheless. Mike Scott went 0-of-4 from the floor, and the Sixers hemorrhaged points without Harris and Butler on the floor. Philadelphia’s starting five can match up with any team outside of Golden State. Its bench may be untenable for a Finals run.
The edges of Philly’s roster are rough. Its scuffling bench allowed a 16-point third quarter lead to dwindle down to six with nine minutes to play prior to a timeout from Brown and a much-needed exit from Monroe. But as the Barclays Center crowd rose in the fourth quarter, so did Philadelphia’s headliners, with a trio of options ready to rise to the occasion without Embiid. Brown noted Butler, Simmons and Harris’s ability to create for themselves off the dribble, a marked difference from Philly’s crew of spot-up specialists last season. The Sixers' mid-season moves stripped much of their roster’s armor. They also provided plenty of bullets.
Toronto and Boston reset aspects of their rosters from last year’s postseason to April, both by trade (Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol) and injury rehab (Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving). Yet no team feels as hastily configured as Philadelphia. Butler spent Game 1 as the alpha dog with 36 points. He scored just 16 on Thursday. Simmons will spend entire halves with his hands on his hips in the half court, and Embiid may be a game-time decision every night through the rest of the playoffs. Such inconsistency could prove to be Philadelphia’s downfall.
Philly’s lack of cohesion may rear its ugly head at a later date in the postseason. It wasn’t enough to derail the Sixers in Game 3, though, as they seized a 2–1 series lead without their All-NBA center. Philly’s Embiid insurance was costly. It’s also necessary as his health remains in question.
“We have the pieces,” Simmons said. “It’s about everybody stepping up.”