NEW YORK – After the Philadelphia 76ers’ first four-game playoff sweep on Saturday in a best-of-seven series since the start of Ronald Reagan’s second presidential term, the mood outside their locker room at Barclays Center was, rightly, festive.
Tobias Harris squealed with delight after being the best player on the court in a closing game. The assistant coaches playfully barked at Paul Reed, who was the biggest dog on the floor, outplaying the Nets on the glass to a comedic degree. Head coach Doc Rivers shouted that he could arrange a tee time for Sunday morning.
The winner goes to the spoils. And yet, even after the Sixers closed out the Brooklyn Nets with a 96-88 victory, it’s hard not to dwell on the final question posed to Rivers in his postgame press conference: what is his level of confidence that Joel Embiid will be ready for the start of the second round?
“It’s not that I don’t trust; I just don’t know,” Rivers said. “I would say right now it’s probably the same percentage I said before the game. Probably 50 per cent, at best.
It was a sobering assessment after another triumphant performance. The Sixers have been a great shorthanded team all season, so it’s no surprise they added a playoff win to their resume. They improved to 12-5 without Embiid this season. And while there were plenty of standout performances to choose from, no player shone brighter than Harris.
Harris went 11 of 19 from the field for 25 points and contributed with 12 rebounds. It was a plus-15 record, while the offense was stuck in mud for most of the afternoon. And unlike most situations, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey couldn’t revive them
So the Sixers threw the ball to Harris and asked him to make plays. And the whole game he was up to it.
It was the type of mid-post isolations that Rivers called Harris with regularity when he was the LA Clippers’ No. 1 option in 2018. That’s not his role on these Sixers with this level of power from offensive fire. Harris took on a supporting role, 3-and-D. And when Harris has a poor shooting game, Rivers will often point to the ball not moving enough. Harris isn’t always completely blameless, but often the ball doesn’t find him.
But with Embiid out and Harden struggling, the Sixers threw the ball to Harris and he went to work. Harris was still better than any Brooklyn player guarding him.
“Whatever role I play throughout the year, I work day in and day out to craft for times like this,” Harris said. “And I understand the type of game that the playoffs are, it’s for hoops to really shine and show their level of scoring ability in different places and at different times.
“And for me, opportunities came up here and I was able to take advantage of them. Just use my size and strength.
Harris wasn’t the only Sixers player to use his strength. Philly was also the toughest team in a way that hasn’t been the case in recent years.
The best example of this was Paul Reed, who replaced Embiid in the starting lineup. Reed played a career-high 32 minutes on Saturday, continuously beating the Nets on the offensive glass. The Sixers collected 37% of their misses, which is a huge number, according to Cleaning The Glass. And Reed had eight all by himself.
After the game, Harden complimented Reed on his second-half performance. And he made key commotion plays, like that offensive rebound and kick pass for a 3-point De’Anthony Melton.
But it’s not just Reed who invented hustle games. Melton played key minutes in the second half and had some key attacking advice. Jalen McDaniels also gives the Sixers a fluid athlete on the open court. There’s a degree of athleticism, especially off the bench, that the Sixers haven’t possessed in previous seasons.
While Saturday was a great win, the bigger picture is much more uncertain. And it’s because of the status of their two best players.
James Harden shot 9 of 34 from 2-point range in the series against Brooklyn. Harden doesn’t have the agility to blow through defenders like he once did, but he created enough decent looks for himself on Saturday. He just didn’t.
Harden operating inside the arc, especially on layups and floats, was hard to watch at times. In this game, one of the greatest scorers in the history of the sport cannot convert a lay-up.
But Embiid’s status and the uncertainty caused by Rivers’ comments weigh in on everything else. The most important factor for the Sixers in the playoffs is the health of their big man. Any streak that Embiid doesn’t get through healthy, through the lens of trying to win a championship, can feel like a loss.
The Sixers will have at least a week off before their next series, likely against the Boston Celtics. By dispatching an inferior opponent in the first round in four games, they have certainly won the battle. Now all eyes are on their ability to win the war.
(Photo by Tobias Harris and Royce O’Neale: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)