The Philadelphia 76ers have more all-star players, a better record, and higher post season expectations, but the Brooklyn Nets looked like the more balanced team as they cruised to a relatively comfortable 111-102 victory at Wells Fargo Center. While it is easy to blame the Sixers’ horrific shooting percentage as the main culprit for the loss, that would ignore the main problem head coach Brett Brown and the Sixers need to solve to win the series, defending Brooklyn’s offense.
Brooklyn’s version of this NBA staple offensive set employs either Jarrett Allen or Ed Davis as the screener and D’Angelo Russell as the decision maker with the ball. On paper, this shouldn’t cause the chaos it did in Game One. The 76ers can guard the paint with Joel Embiid, one of NBA’s best players, and defend the primary ball handler with Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, etc., guys with the athleticism to fight through the screen and keep the defensive pressure on the ball. The problem was that Embiid’s position in the paint was too deep, so once the screen effectively created space for D’Angelo Russell, Russell could either shoot a mid-range jumper, pass to an open teammate, or drive the basket before Embiid could affect the outcome of the play. Once Russell started making the mid-range jumper, Brooklyn took control of the game.
Here is one example of how Brooklyn used the pick-and-roll to get an open shot against Philly’s defense. D’Angelo Russell starts off the play by dribbling the ball to his left, buying time for Joe Harris to make a cut to the basket. Take note of Embiid’s position at the free throw line.
Joe Harris draws his defender into the lane. Ed Davis gets into position to screen Tobias Harris and Embiid holds his ground.
Ed Davis Screen Tobias Harris. Russell continues to dribble to his left around the screen. Embiid faces Russell, but he is too far to alter Russell’s shot.
Russell takes advantage of the opening and shoots before Embiid can attempt to block his shot. In fact, Embiid barely moves his defensive position and concedes the shot.
The situation got even worse when Embiid came off the floor and was replaced by Boban Marjanovic’, a player with less defensive range.
With Embiid on the floor, the Nets primarily ran their pick-and-roll offense, but when Boban Marjonvic’ spelled Embiid, the Nets took the opportunity to play a “small ball” lineup with Jared Dudley as the center. Naturally, Boban was uncomfortable trying to guard players in space, away from the basket, so Sixers coach Brett Brown countered with his “small” lineup. Unfortunately for the Sixers this didn’t work. The Nets relentlessly attacked JJ Redick with Spencer Dinwiddie or Caris LeVert, forcing Brown to take Redick, one of the offensive players Philly relies on to space the floor, out of the game. Even when Brown countered with a better defensive lineup, the Nets were still able to win the one-on-one matchups.
Can the Sixers make the adjustments to win the series?
The sixers should make more 3’s, and Ben Simmons will play better than he did in Game One. But even if those events occur in Game Two, the Sixers still must stop the Nets from scoring. What adjustment can the coach make when Russell and the Nets get good looks at the basket via the pick-and-roll with Embiid on the floor? Things only get worse without Embiid on the court. The Sixers can’t counter the small ball lineup, because they can’t defend Russell, LeVert, or Dinwiddie one-versus-one. Counting on making more 3’s doesn’t sound like a great strategy, but the Nets may have left that as the only adjustment available for the Sixers to make.