It didn’t take a very thorough search to find the bright spots for the Sixers during Saturday’s deflating postseason opener against the Brooklyn Nets. There was Jimmy Butler and then there was, uh, Jimmy Butler, and don’t forget about Jimmy Butler.
“That was the adult in the room,” coach Brett Brown said. “That was a man. You saw the physicality of his game, his elite athleticism, his toughness. He was trying to pull others along.”
Unfortunately for the Sixers, the others weren’t having any part of that. Butler scored 23 in the first half alone to keep the team from disappearing beneath the waves, and even hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to close the half. It was the kind of shot that usually signals a defiant turnaround. The crowd was back in the game, the team skipped up the tunnel to the locker room, and a measly eight-point halftime deficit at home looked like no big problem.
As it turned out, however, everything was a big problem on this afternoon. Ben Simmons and JJ Redick, the starting backcourt, combined for just 14 points and were each a minus-21. No one in the lineup aside from Butler and Joel Embiid, to the extent his knee would allow, played competent defense. Brooklyn got the switches it wanted and was able to spot up three-point shooters or put the ball on the floor and head for the basket area.
“(Jimmy) was trying to find participants outside of Joel and that really didn’t happen for whatever reason,” Brown said. “I give Brooklyn credit, but we have to get better ideas and find a way to change some things to win. It’s not like it’s a mystery to us.”
The game was far from mysterious for Butler. He finished with 36 points and nine rebounds, and he got all of that production by inserting himself into the fray and making the Nets deal with him. The rest of the team was mostly passive, as if waiting for the magic postseason switch to be flipped.
The Nets, who had three starters playing their first career playoff game, looked like the more settled team, and also like the team that cared more. As a 42-40 sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, they weren’t given much chance in this series, but all they need is a split in the six potential games remaining to pull off the upset.
Brown may know the answer to the mystery, but whatever adjustments he tries, the Nets aren’t going to get any slower between now and Monday night’s Game 2. That speed advantage, particularly when the ballhandlers successfully switched onto Redick or Harris, was a difference maker.
Even as bad as it looked – and the home fans registered their opinion by booing them off the court – it was a nine-point loss on a day when little went right. The Sixers were 3-for-25 on three-point attempts. So if they had gone 6-for-25, still a miserable 24 percent, it’s a tie game. They missed 13 free throws, more than than the difference right there. And even though they aren’t always dependable at the line, they did make 77 percent in the regular season. So, the game had terrible optics, but like a sideview mirror, the Sixers weren’t as far away as it looked.
“We’re going to be OK,” Butler said. “I think we’ve got to guard better. Man up, and guard your man one-on-one. We’ve got to figure out a way to do it. We fouled. We played with our hands. We worried about the three at times and then they go in and get a layup. We just have to do a better job of staying in front of our man.”
That’s fine except when the man is faster and changes direction quickly and gets past you. The really poor defenders have to grab them on the way by, which explains how Redick fouled out in just over 22 minutes, only his second disqualification in 77 games.
What the Sixers have to do is make the Nets take the ball out of the basket, which means they have to get their own three-point offense going and it wouldn’t hurt if Embiid played himself back into shape more quickly. Otherwise, it’s going to be all-Jimmy-all-the-time again, and that’s fine for a man trying to play his way into a max contract extension, but it’s no way to win a playoff series.
“It was eye-opening. I think that’s what you call it,” Butler said of the first game. “But we’ll be back on the same floor Monday.”
History tells us that game will be far different. If it isn’t, the Sixers are going to be less likely to make history than to become part of it.