Outside of the intricacies on either side of the ball, there is a larger narrative draped over the 76ers-Brooklyn Nets opening-round playoff series: Which is better, chemistry or talent?
Standing on one side are the Sixers. With the addition of Jimmy Butler in November, then Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and Boban Marjanovic in February, the Sixers made good on their go-for-it-now plan. Each of the players added in the two trades came to the Sixers with playoff experience, and in Butler and Harris’ cases, were expected to be the talent needed to help the Sixers reach the NBA Finals.
On the other side you have the Nets, steeped in losing records the last four years while slowly building up a young core, featuring team-friendly contracts, who took an unexpected leap this season while still maintaining salary-cap space. Half of the Nets roster has zero playoff experience, but what Brooklyn boasts is a team that has been largely undisrupted and has familiarity on its side.
In Game 1, the Sixers’ lack of time spent together seemed to be on full display, with confusion taking over rather than energy and aggressiveness. Butler and Joel Embiid seemed to be the only players the Sixers had who could get anything going. The Nets certainly felt confident ahead of Game 2.
“You’re asking a [lot of a] first-year group that made the trade for Jimmy midway through the season, then Tobias,” Brooklyn’s Jared Dudley said on Sunday. “So, chemistry. There’s no way they’re going to have the same chemistry as most teams, even us.”
There’s no one who is arguing that point, and Brett Brown has made it clear that in an ideal world the Sixers would have had more time for them to get to know one another on the court. But this is not an ideal world, and what the Sixers are banking on is that talent will trump everything.
“They might be more talented, more All-Stars, but who gets the ball when they need a basket?” Dudley said. “When stuff is breaking down, you see Jimmy running to the ball, [Joel] Embiid wants to post up, Ben Simmons is trying to find his spots."
But in Game 2, there was a shift that seemed to answer some of these questions and hint at expedited growth. The Sixers’ talent was too much for the Nets to handle and showed that they have several weapons willing to pass the ball and let one another shine.
After Butler put up 36 points in the Sixers’ Game 1 loss, he noted his disappointment in not getting others involved. He took a different approach in Game 2, dispelling the notion that he needs to play hero-ball in order for the Sixers to win.
There was a moment in the Sixers’ 145-123 Game 2 win on Monday when Butler denied a screen and drove to the basket, drawing a foul. The first option would have been to use the screen and draw in another defender to a cutting Harris. After the foul call, Butler went up to Harris and said, “I got you.” Later, Butler used the same play and made a perfect pass to Harris right underneath the basket to give the Sixers a 22-point lead.
“We know offensively that when we settle down and get to our spots that we can get buckets,” Harris said after the game.
The second half was more than just an example of what the Sixers can be if their starting unit, littered with All-Star talent, is all playing to its strengths. Harris, after struggling to get into an offensive rhythm through the first six quarters of the series, scored 12 of his 19 points during the third quarter. So while the Nets tried to contend with the other Sixers threats, Harris gained momentum heading into Game 3.
Butler has long contended that if every player on the Sixers roster does what he is supposed to do, they can beat any team in the NBA. That’s exactly the idea that the front office is banking on, too, because it’s not just this series that is draped in the narrative that talent trumps everything, it’s the Sixers offseason as well.
The Sixers traded for Butler and Harris knowing that both will be free agents this summer. In order to persuade them to stay, they have to believe that the Sixers have the talent to win.