While the trend in the NBA is for teams to be going smaller, the 76ers showed in their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series win over the Brooklyn Nets that having an advantage in size and physicality can be a recipe toward success.
The center isn’t yet a dinosaur position, especially when manned by somebody with the quickness, agility and power of Joel Embiid.
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The Sixers wore down the Nets, capped by Tuesday’s 122-100 blitzing during the series clincher in Game 5 at the Wells Fargo Center.
After losing, 111-102, in Game 1, the Sixers seriously imposed their will on the Nets.
“After Game 1, I think we recognized as a collective unit we are bigger than them,” said 6-foot-9 Tobias Harris, who continually shot and scored over smaller players and averaged 17.6 points in the series. “We present different things on the court they haven’t really faced so we needed to use that and for myself it was getting to the spots that I know I could raise up over and get my shot.”
When Nets backup center Ed Davis hurt his ankle in Game 1, it was a loss Brooklyn couldn’t afford and wouldn’t recover from.
The 6-foot-10 big man, who had 12 points and 16 rebounds in Game 1, played just two 5 minutes and 30 seconds in Game 2, and 10:11 in Game 3, but was obviously hampered by the injury. He didn’t play at all in Games 4 or 5.
Without Davis, the Nets had to use 6-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the pride of Chester, to guard Embiid when 6-11 starter Jarrett Allen was out of the game.
Hollis-Jefferson is a strong defensive player, but not against somebody with a seven-inch height advantage who is just as quick.
Even Allen had his problems with Embiid – what center wouldn’t? - but he at least gave the Nets a bigger body in the middle. Embiid averaged 24.8 points and 13.5 rebounds.
“Getting Joel on the block and him making his presence throughout the whole series, I thought we did a great job of just exploiting that,” Harris said.
When Embiid left the floor, 7-3 backup Boban Marjanovic flourished for long stretches. Sixers coach Brett Brown was worried that Marjanovic might be misplaced against a Nets team that likes to get out in transition. Marjanovic averaged 10.8 points and 6.2 rebounds.
“We were more physical and had more size than them,” Marjanovic said.
For the most part the Sixers defense didn’t allow the Nets transition game to prosper, forcing Brooklyn to play a half-court game. That allowed Marjanovic to be a factor.
It wasn’t just the size advantage at center that benefited the Sixers.
Harris and Jimmy Butler continually shot over smaller players, many times off the dribble.
Ben Simmons was no match for whoever guarded the Sixers 6-10 point guard. He shot 36 for 56 (64.3 percent).
While many people criticize Simmons’ lack of a reliable jumper, and surely having one would help, what we saw in the opening round series was Simmons scoring extensively with his opposite (right) hand.
He is starting to master a jump hook with his right hand. It’s an almost unstoppable shot. He obviously can shoot it left handed as well. After Game 1, Simmons also took the ball more with authority to the rim.
The Sixers won’t have such a size and physicality advantage in the second round against Toronto. The Raptors start 7-1 Marc Gasol along with emerging 6-9 forward Pascal Siakam and 6-7 two-way superstar Kawhi Leonard in their frontcourt. (Leonard will spend plenty of time defending Simmons and in the three games the two played this year, he got the better of the Sixers point guard).
In addition, 6-10, 235-pound center-forward Serge Ibaka is a solid frontcourt player to have coming off the bench.