NEW YORK -- Few players work harder than J.J. Redick in the playoffs. As usual, the Philadelphia 76ers guard is dealing with a defense that is obsessed with preventing him from touching the ball. He rarely stops moving, always reading the defense and looking for an opportunity to shake free. The only way he will get an open shot is if the Brooklyn Nets make a mistake.
In the third quarter of the Sixers' 131-115 win in Game 3 on Thursday, Nets wing Joe Harris made one such mistake. Brooklyn went over it in its film session on Friday. As Jimmy Butler probed with the ball, Harris relaxed, if only for a beat.
"It was one of those instances where you turn your head to ball watch for a quick second," Harris said.
Redick darted to the right corner and called for the ball.
"Joe ends up chasing him," Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. "He shot-fakes, takes one dribble, hits a corner 3. And then it's like almost like the floodgates open."
Redick made three more 3-pointers before the end of the period, and "he had us jumping all over the place," Harris said. This was exactly what Brooklyn didn't want to happen. Redick is dangerous because he can put up points in a hurry, and also because the threat of his shot opens things up for his teammates. Harris has spent all series positioning himself between Redick and the 3-point line, or "top-blocking" him -- this is the term of the playoffs so far, as the Los Angeles Clippers are aggressively doing it to the Golden State Warriors' shooters -- but the sharpshooter is used to having to expend even more energy than normal to get daylight this time of year.
"Playoffs are always harder," Redick said. "I think going back to maybe 2015, that's how teams have played me in the playoffs. Houston played me that way. San Antonio played me that way. The next year, Portland played me that way. The next year, Joe Ingles top-blocked me 90 feet from the basket."
Redick is brilliant at using screens and running dribble-handoffs, so opponents do their best to stop him from doing so. Even if he never got open, he would be helping his team merely by taking Harris out of the picture. Not only does it wear Harris down, but it also allows the rest of the Sixers to play four-on-four. Atkinson said he has considered putting somebody else on Redick because it's such taxing work.
You probably don't think of Redick and Harris as elite athletes, but they are tied for fifth in average speed among playoff starters, per NBA.com. This is the case because, when Redick is on defense, he is stalking Harris the exact same way. In college and his early years in the NBA, Harris studied how Redick moved without the ball and tried to emulate him. The admiration is mutual, as Redick said Harris is one of his favorite players to watch.
"I just like how he plays," Redick said. "He's tough. He plays hard every night. There's no bull---- to him. He's out there to help his team and try to win basketball games."
Philadelphia has a 2-1 lead partially because Redick is winning this matchup. Harris has shot 3-for-11 from the field and 0-for-6 from deep in the last two games after leading the league in 3-point percentage in the regular season and scoring efficiently in the series opener. As Brooklyn tries to even things up on Saturday, it's worth watching whether or not Harris can get going. The Nets should also try to force Redick to switch onto their attacking guards, who have a better chance of exploiting him.
Say it with me: Small-ball five, surround him with shooters! For a certain type of NBA fan, it is beyond cliché to suggest that, in an ideal world, this would be Ben Simmons' best role. He cannot play this role full-time as long as Joel Embiid is on his team, but we saw it for five minutes in the fourth quarter on Thursday. And the results were glorious:
The Sixers' offense looked faster and more fluid without Embiid, who is officially listed as doubtful for Game 4. With Mike Scott on the floor instead of Greg Monroe or Boban Marjanovic, the spacing made this much more pronounced.
"It just changes the dynamic of their team," Brooklyn guard D'Angelo Russell said. "When your point guard is rolling and setting screens and doing the things that you would expect a big to do, it's hard to just gauge -- it's unpredictable, almost."
Nets forward Jared Dudley invoked Lamar Odom when trying to come up with someone Simmons' size who could bring the ball up and also function as an effective screener. Dudley also brought up Giannis Antetokounmpo and the spacing he enjoys in Milwaukee. Simmons wants to be known as a point guard, but he has improved at doing big-man stuff -- posting up and screening -- this season. It is unclear how often Philadelphia coach Brett Brown will be willing to use him at point-center in this series and beyond, but it is easy to see why fans clamor for it.
Brooklyn is confident in its offense, but …
Atkinson thinks the Nets can improve their shot selection, ball movement and decision-making. He wants his guards to do a better job kicking the ball out when Philadelphia packs the paint on their drives. Most of Brooklyn's practice, though, was dedicated to defense and rebounding.
"Game 1 was top-level (defense) and we've really dropped," Atkinson said.
The Sixers have a 39.6 percent offensive rebounding rate in the series, which is the best mark of any playoff team by a mile. The Nets have practiced basic box-out technique this week, and Atkinson said he has never seen a team consistently send four or five players to the glass like this. Dudley said that, if the Nets don't start rebounding better and making Philadelphia pay in transition, they will have a tough time holding their opponents under 120 points.
Brooklyn recorded just 12 assists and went 8-for-39 from deep in Game 3, but nobody around the team seems worried about offense. The Sixers have had difficulty keeping the Nets' playmakers in check all season, and everybody is raving about the resurgence of Caris LeVert. There is real concern, though, about the consequences of Ed Davis missing Game 4 with an ankle injury. In Brooklyn's lone win, Davis changed the game on both ends, contributing 12 points and 16 rebounds in 25 minutes.
I did not think I'd ever hear Brown talking up Marjanovic's transition defense, but that's what happened on Friday. Brown described him as disciplined and committed in this area, going so far as to say, "he's been exceptional when the game has turned into a track meet."
Nets center Jarrett Allen laughed when asked about the challenge of battling Marjanovic under the basket, saying that the team needs to "eliminate him" from being in rebounding range.
"Even if you box him out, he literally can just put two hands above your head and still grab the ball," Allen said. "Really, for him, we've gotta face-guard him."
The 6-foot-7 Dudley said he just tries to get into Marjanovic's legs in post-up situations, but things get trickier in pick-and-rolls. If his defender has to help, it is almost impossible to recover in time to keep Marjanovic away from the glass.
"When the shot goes up, it's basically a race to go hit him," Dudley said. "He's already in the paint. It's not like he's 6-10 where the ball is coming up. He's tipping it up in the air, he's tipping it to himself like it's volleyball. It's a very unique case of a player, for someone that big to be that coordinated."
Naturally, Dudley said that Brooklyn needs to keep trying to make Marjanovic defend pin-downs and pick-and-rolls. When asked if Marjanovic was the largest player he'd ever been matched up with, Dudley replied, "Yao Ming." He then clarified that he never actually defended Yao, but once wound up in a jump ball with him.
"That's matched up, right?" Dudley said.