PHILADELPHIA — Golf-cart-riding Joel Embiid, doing everything he could to improve his mummified left knee, ran across a tight space in the back hallways of the Wells Fargo Center and needed assistance to get through.
No, it wasn’t a gang of Brooklyn Nets giving him the treatment they did during the Philadelphia 76ers’ opening-round loss Saturday afternoon, a 111-102 decision that didn’t feel as close as the spread indicated.
The Nets didn’t steal Game 1. They took it, held it up high and played keep-away like a big brother toying with a younger one.
They swarmed Embiid, double-teaming him, fouling him and, when prudent, leaving him alone to shoot open threes that didn’t find the mark. They found a way to use Embiid’s supposed inspiration against him, as he was a game-time decision and wasn’t sure he would play until 20 minutes before tipoff.
“I was just thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, push through the pain,’” Embiid said after his 22-point, 15-rebound, five-block performance that didn’t really have much of an effect. “I was just trying to do the right thing.”
That early adrenaline pushed Embiid into shooting himself out of the game and the Nets into it, highlighting all the ills the 76ers couldn’t overcome and giving credence to why many feel this group is as vulnerable as any 50-win team this postseason.
Ben Simmons can’t shoot — and won’t shoot — in case you forgot or stopped watching the 76ers for the past several weeks. A physical marvel when he wants to be, he failed to exert any force on the game, a surprising development when you consider how much Embiid was struggling to find any rhythm early.
Jimmy Butler, a man who seemed all but resigned to playing the good soldier for the past several weeks to suppress confusion, found himself standing alone amid the playoff pressure.
He looked up and his team was down 17 before he nearly dug the 76ers out of it, with physical drives and opportunistic loose balls and a buzzer-beating jumper before the half. The 76ers needed more than his career-playoff-high 36 points, but they needed production from someone else.
“The thing that bothered me the most is the fact I didn’t have a single assist,” Butler said. “I think if I’m getting everybody involved and getting everybody else easy shots, the game goes a different way.”
Was it Embiid’s 1-of-9 start that kept Tobias Harris from getting involved? Or merely the thought that this team has been cobbled together over the past few months with barely a foundation to speak of aside from Embiid and Simmons? It's hard to believe this franchise made the second round last spring, but when you consider they hovered around .500 before making an improbable run last season, perhaps too much was added too soon.
“We're comfortable with each other. We all love each other. But I think so,” said Embiid when asked if the “10 games” the group has had together is enough time to develop playoff-level chemistry. “That's not the reason we lost. We didn't execute offensively or defensively. We weren't aggressive, we weren't physical. We didn't play our brand of basketball, especially me. I have to bully people around.”
Bullying people is a lot easier when you have two healthy knees. Embiid often labored downcourt and could barely put together consecutive possessions indicative of a man who’s in shape. He hasn’t played in a week.
The 76ers’ ills — their lack of depth, nonexistent shooting and questionable role identification — was on full display in the playoff opener. Things that are masked in 82 games can be exposed in the 83rd.
Not to mention, they couldn’t get on the same page in the postgame, when head coach Brett Brown said reserve center Amir Johnson would be fined heavily for having his cellphone on the bench after being caught by cameras showing Embiid a text message — to which Embiid said Johnson was giving him an update on Johnson’s ill daughter.
And that’s not even considering the fact it seems no one was fit to tell the franchise center that being a defender and rebounder was his greatest value, and to leave the scoring to the three wings who would more than make up for the extra opportunities.
“I tell him all the time, it's about him being healthy,” Butler said. “Yeah, he can help us, but at the same time he can hurt us if he gets worse. Don't get me wrong, we definitely want Jo out there. But we want him healthy.”
The Nets shut off the valve to JJ Redick on offense, and targeted him on defense, executing their strategy and leading to a few pointed comments from the 76ers about the Nets’ game plan being on point.
The Nets, the real playoff neophytes, looked poised as they withstood emotional bursts from the home team. You forget it’s a new scene for Caris LeVert, D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, but at least they aren’t new to each other.
Russell shook off a 1-of-9 start to score 26, while LeVert continued his new life following that ugly-looking ankle injury to score 23. Dinwiddie played like a man who’s been waiting for this for quite some time, dropping 18 and adding a few smirks as he watched the 76ers look around for somebody, anybody, to help.
“I think as they gain experience together, they'll just know,” Dinwiddie said to Yahoo Sports about the 76ers. “They'll kinda be on autopilot of what they're trying to do and what they're trying to look for when the chips get down. For a team that's still trying to jell together, they get some of that, some of those question marks.
“If it was a cartoon, it would be looking around with the question mark bubble. And you can apply a little more pressure and continue our game plan.”
The pressure of the game, and of the circumstances, are in the air. The 76ers have big dreams, and owner Josh Harris reiterated he wants to keep this group together. Butler, Harris and Redick are unrestricted free agents, Simmons is up for his rookie extension this summer and 76ers coach Brett Brown’s job security has been fodder for speculation for months now.
It makes for a tricky situation, doesn’t it?
“It's an eye-opener. That's what you call it,” Butler said. “I'm telling you, we'll be fine. We're gonna practice, a day to regroup. We'll be back on this same court Monday.”
Eyes are open, and perhaps everyone is realizing you can't ‘just add water’ to make a contender.
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