2019 NBA Playoffs: 76ers flaunt their best version vs. Nets in Game 2, giving any postseason opponent reason for concern

It always was a fair and reasonable point of view to worry more about the Philadelphia 76ers than any top-tier, Finals-contending team in these NBA playoffs. Their ceiling always was as high as just about any team not named the Golden State Warriors. But for them to reach that ceiling, most everything had to go right.

And just as their Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday proved why their margin for error is miniscule, so did their Game 2 win prove why their ceiling is so incredibly high -- not just in these playoffs but over the next half-decade.

The reason that Game 1 loss was so concerning was because it wasn't a fluke. You could point to the Toronto Raptors' Game 1 loss to the Orlando Magic as somewhat fluky; Kyle Lowry can't possibly play that poorly the rest of the series, and D.J. Augustin can't possibly play that well the rest of the series, and the Magic can't possibly make 14 of 29 3-pointers every game for the rest of the series. 

But the Sixers' loss felt like it highlighted more structural, fundamental issues with the team. The Nets dominated the Sixers, and every issue that is wrong with this Philadelphia team was on display. Joel Embiid's knee was wonky, and led him to be a far less aggressive player than he should be. The team's spacing was awful. Tobias Harris felt like an afterthought, J.J. Redick couldn't make any shots and certainly couldn't defend any shots, and Ben Simmons was flat-out terrible: Unaggressive, unwilling to shoot, unable to make any sort of difference in an intense playoff environment. Sixers fans took notice, with the boo birds raining down at the end of the first quarter, the end of the third quarter and again at the end of the game. Embiid's and Amir Johnson's Candid Camera moment where they were caught fiddling with a cell phone on the bench only underscored exactly what an embarrassing performance this incredibly talented team had just put on.

But in Monday's Game 2?

Game 2 was a tantalizing show of exactly how good these Sixers can be when they're at their best.

Make no mistake: These Sixers at their best are not just capable of making the Finals from the East. They're capable of putting a scare into the Golden State Warriors (or … some other team from the West that can maybe/possibly make the Finals?). Their ceiling is so, so high.

Monday night saw something close to the Sixers at their best. They were aggressive from the tip. Simmons, who was a non-entity in Game 1, put his imprint on the game from the beginning and ended up posting a triple-double in only 30 minutes. Harris and Redick finally made some shots; they combined for 4 of 9 3-pointers and scored a combined 36 points two days after combining for one 3-pointer and nine points. Jimmy Butler was allowed the luxury of being able to fade into the background after being the only Sixer to show signs of life in Game 1.

But as always with the Sixers, the most important player was Embiid. And he seemed a completely different player than he was on Saturday, when he seemed winded, his play affected by that knee. Embiid scored 23 points on only 12 shots, and gathered 10 rebounds. But the most important statistic for Embiid on Monday had to do with what he didn't do, not with what he did do. Embiid didn't shoot a single 3-pointer, instead focusing on getting his work done closer to the rim. On Saturday, he took five 3s in the first half, missing them all. It set a tone for a Sixers team that wasn't as aggressive as it needed to be against a Nets team that is awesome in the backcourt but much less awesome down low.

By the beginning of fourth quarter, with the Sixers up 29, the Sixers' starting five could all take a seat. Do not underestimate how important that rest is for the Sixers. Embiid only had to play 23 minutes on Monday, and sat the entirety of the fourth quarter. For Embiid to get to rest that knee is vital to the Sixers' chances at going deep into these playoffs. A five-game series win against the Nets would be catnip for Sixers fans, because that'll mean a week off for Embiid, and the more rest Embiid gets, the better chance this team has in the next round against the Toronto Raptors -- presuming the Raptors can right their ship against the Magic.

All this is not meant to count out this Nets team. They are a great story: A fun motley crew of rejects and reclamation projects who've made good. They were right in this game on Monday night until the Sixers came out guns blazing in the third quarter and blew the Nets out the rest of the way. D'Angelo Russell might be a legit star after Nets general manager Sean Marks gave him a chance at redemption. Spencer Dinwiddie is an analytics geek's dream. Caris LeVert is a player who has been counted out so many times and keeps coming back better than before. Joe Harris turned a career that seemed destined for Europe into a career that has him as one of the top 3-point shooters in the NBA. Jarrett Allen backs down from no earthly man. This Nets team is fun, their culture is great, and their future is bright.

But this series is not now and never will be about the Nets. This series is about the Sixers, whether they win or whether they lose. If they end up losing -- whether it's because of Embiid's knee or because of a few more poor shooting performances or as a final verdict on the Sixers' oddball roster -- it will end up being one of the biggest first-round playoff failures in recent NBA history. The Sixers went through a painful years-long process to get to this point. A first-round failure could detonate years of careful planning.

I do not expect that to happen. I expect the Sixers to show us their better version when this series heads to Brooklyn for Games 3 and 4. It is not a guarantee; this is a dangerous Nets team.

But the Sixers, at their best, are far more dangerous. They're win-the-East dangerous.

One of the great storylines of this year's playoffs is how much of the Sixers at their best we get to see over the next few games -- or, if they're really playing at their best, over the next seven or so weeks.

Our Latest Stories