NEW YORK - The final, futile shot rattled into and out of the rim. The ball bounced to the court, the benches emptied, and Joel Embiid raised his arms in the air. This felt like the aftermath of something bigger than a 112-108 win, and, from a couple of different perspectives, that’s exactly what it was.
Within the context of a seven-game series, the tide doesn’t turn much harder than it does between 2-2 and 3-1. The Sixers are now on the positive end of that differential, with a chance to close out the Nets at home on Tuesday. Just as significant is how they got there, perched atop the shoulders of the two young stars who will ultimately determine how this current chapter of franchise history ends.
For 20 minutes on Saturday afternoon, the Sixers were the team they’d spent the previous three years envisioning: Ben Simmons, his brow furrowed, forcing his way to the rim on offense and using every bit of his 84-inch wingspan to suffocate the Nets on defense; Embiid, his face glazed with a near-catatonic calm, staking his claim on a paint big enough only for him.
“I saw a partnership,” their head coach said later in an assessment that was impossible to dispute.
They’d been building toward this moment. You saw it in flashes throughout the regular season, a synergy between these two young stars that often seemed lacking in their first year together. You saw it when the seconds were rolling and you saw it between the whistles. But while we’d seen dominant performances from each of them as individuals, this might have been the first time that we saw them claim a victory together. Certainly, it was the first facing stakes such as this.
The tipping point arrived with 7:42 remaining in the third quarter. Trailing by eight, struggling like hell to stop the Nets’ pick-and-roll game, Simmons and Embiid had just been at the center of a fracas that ended with the ejection of the Sixers’ usual closer. If they were going to avoid a trip back to Philly with the series tied, somebody other than Jimmy Butler was going to have to take the lead. Together, Simmons and Embiid both raised a hand.
First came a six-foot floater from Embiid. Then a tomahawk dunk from Simmons. Then Embiid hitting a cutting Simmons for a layup. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Sixers trailing by four, Embiid drew a double team outside the left block and passed out of it to a wide-open Simmons underneath.
Each time down the court, the two young stars seemed determined to make the Nets pay the maximum physical toll for the kerfuffle that, along with Butler, earned Simmons’ chief antagonist his ejection. Although Embiid dismissed Jared Dudley as a “nobody" in a postgame interview, the forward’s absence left the Nets’ defense looking like it had even less of a somebody there.
“It was a point of the game where two guys got thrown out and we knew we had to step up a little bit more and take over," Simmons said.
By the time pivotal closing moments arrived, Simmons and Embiid had combined for 27 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists, and 2 blocks during a 49-40 run that gave the Sixers a 110-108 lead. It was only fitting, then, that the death blow came with a Nets player trapped between them. As Jarrett Allen drove to the rim with under 10 seconds remaining, Simmons disrupted his rhythm with a swat at the ball as Embiid and Mike Scott converged. With nowhere to go, Allen bobbled the ball, and Simmons snatched it away to secure possession.
“I think Ben has done a great job on D in contesting every single three that he has, rebounding, being aggressive at the rim, finding guys when they’re open," Butler said. “He’s so smart. He knows how to get guys the ball in positions where we can score. ... You can say whatever you want to say about him, but I think he’s been pretty darn good.”
It was the kind of game that you could not watch without feeling a sort of buzzing sensation. The Nets are a team that the Sixers will need to reckon with for the foreseeable future. This was as good a game as you get in the first round of the playoffs, and that can only help the winner moving forward. Up three games to one, the Sixers seem destined to be that team, with a date against the second-seeded Raptors looming. Credit Harris’ 43 minutes of court time, and Mike Scott’s pivotal corner three. Credit JJ Redick for a trio of defensive possessions where he locked down DeMarre Carroll and D’Angelo Russell.