They were up 25, and their opponent was shooting 23 percent from the field, and the only thing left for anybody to do was wonder how many points Furkan Korkmaz would score. And yet there the Sixers were, five minutes left in the second quarter, fresh off a timeout, picking the Nets up fullcourt.
In general, there aren’t a lot of things left to say in the wake of a 122-100 win, and this night was no exception. The Sixers were the better team in this series, and in a dominant Game 5 clincher, they erased any remaining doubt about the magnitude of that talent differential. Nothing about what happens from this point forward is contingent on that fact. You can save any talk of “statements” or “momentum” or any other abstract jibber-jabber that we tend to fall back on in the absence of obvious plot points. At some point this weekend, they will take the court in Toronto for the start of the Eastern Conference semifinals and, with the opening tip, their first real final exam of the 2018-19 season will begin. End of story.
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“We can be really good,” Jimmy Butler said afterward, “but I always say that you can talk all you want — you’ve got to go out and actually make it happen.”
And yet . . .
While they may not have made a statement, the Sixers definitely said something. Joel Embiid said it in the second quarter when he disrupted Spencer Dinwiddie’s dribble underneath the basket and then turned around and then scrambled to the other side of the paint and altered Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s shot. James Ennis said it when he planted himself a foot outside the restricted area and happily absorbed the impact of an oncoming ballhandler on a play that should have been called a charge. Butler said it when he dove after a loose ball with five minutes left in the second quarter. And Brett Brown said it when he blanketed the backcourt blue on that aforementioned inbound play.
All of these things occurred with the Sixers leading by 20 or more points and with the Nets’ on-court posture drooping with the physiological sag of imminent defeat. Embiid had already missed one game with knee tendinitis and had been limited in the rest. Ennis was playing on a recently rehabilitated quadriceps that not long ago left him doubtful to appear in this series. After four games of some of the most physically demanding basketball you will see in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 series, the Sixers had every reason to lessen some of the pressure that they were applying to the Nets’ throat. While that probably won’t leave Kawhi Leonard quaking in his New Balance sneakers, it should give the rest of us some hope that a repeat of last year can be averted.
“I think if you’re going through an intense, pressure-filled series, it can bring you together and make you better, stronger as a team,” JJ Redick said. “This series, I think, brought us together. And, obviously, from here, it just gets tougher.”
A couple of hours before tipoff, Brown attempted to steer the conversation in his pregame news conference to the topic of defense. It’s something that he often does, that all coaches do, and for very good reason. Defense might not win championships all by itself, but it has lost quite a few of them. Among the more memorable performances in that genre was the one that the Sixers turned in against the Celtics in last year’s conference semifinals. Against a team that was playing without its superstar point guard, Brown’s rotation seemed powerless to stop Boston’s dribble penetration.
That will not be the case this time around, provided the Sixers take the court against the Raptors with an effort similar to the one they turned in over the last three games of this series against the Nets. There’d long been reason to think that they had the capability. As Nets coach Kenny Atkinson observed during his pregame media availability, Embiid is one of a small handful of elite rim protectors in the game. Butler did not earn multiple all-defensive-team honors by accident. And Ben Simmons has the length and strength and lateral quickness to join that sort of company someday soon.
We simply had not seen it, in real life, in real time, in the sorts of stretches that a team must put together to consider itself a legitimate contender. On Tuesday night, it was there, and it had been steadily growing to that point over the course of the series. The exclamation point came in the form of a 14-0 run that saw the Nets miss their first eight shots. Some of that was due to the Nets’ being the Nets, a young, inexperienced team consistently settling for low-efficiency shots from mid-range. But much of it was due to the Sixers’ forcing the issue.
Butler has been the exact sort of on-the-ball menace the Sixers did not have at this point last year. He was that player again in Game 5, spending the second half as a one-man wall in front of Brooklyn’s talented ballhandlers. There was a sequence midway through the second quarter in which every Nets player touched the ball as they frantically swung it around the horn. At each stop, there was a Sixer in position before the ball even arrived. By the time it returned to the middle of the court, DeMarre Carroll was left with no other option but to drive at Embiid, a tactic that will not win you many points, and did not in this case.
“I think intensity-wise, and physicality — I think our team was physical the whole time, besides the first game,” Simmons said. “I think we need to take that over to Toronto."