BROOKLYN – Game 4 had it all.
Ejections and hard fouls, millionaire athletes trash talking their way up and down the court, big momentum changing shots, and maddening turnovers. A Saturday afternoon showdown provided all the entertainment a basketball fan will ever need. In the middle of it all was a pivotal, season-shaping game of basketball.
The short and skinny: the Philadelphia 76ers walk away from Barclays Center with a 112-108 win over the Brooklyn Nets. Victory puts the Sixers on the verge on the second round. They will have the chance to close out the series and secure a likely second round showdown with the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night back in Philadelphia. That is the 10,000 foot takeaway, but the immediate minutiae of what took place in Game 4 is much more salacious.
A chippy series erupted during the third quarter. Jared Dudley took exception to a hard foul from Joel Embiid on Jarrett Allen. Dudley ran in to remonstrate with Embiid and with that, it was on. A brawl ensued, with Dudley and Jimmy Butler both ejected for their role in the proceedings.
It isn’t surprising that this series finally erupted on the court. Finding Dudley right in the middle of everything is, perhaps, the most predictable outcome of all. Dudley has been central to all the noise around this series. His media comments about Ben Simmons set off a preverbal tennis match between both squads once the series shifted to Brooklyn. Butler was asked postgame if the Sixers were expecting Dudley’s antics to continue in Game 4. His response was illuminating.
“We definitely thought it was coming,” Butler said. “I don’t pay attention to it too much but I just don’t think you should run up on anybody like that. We got the dub so that is all I am worried about.”
Dudley has committed to playing the role of an instigator attempting to unsettle a more fancied opponent. It didn’t work in Game 3, as Simmons played the best playoff game of his NBA career and the Sixers took the series lead. Game 4 didn’t fare much better for Dudley or the Nets. Speaking after the game, many Sixers pointed to the third quarter incident as a turning point.
“It was a point in the game where two guys got thrown out and we had to step up a little bit more and take over,” Simmons said. “Joel did a great job of getting down low and sealing and making plays. J.J., Mike also with the final shot. Tobias making plays. I think everybody did their job.”
Simmons followed up his fluorescent performance in Game 3 with another impressive outing, as he finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. For all his antics, it must be said that Dudley was playing a tremendous game before his ejection. Injected into the Nets starting lineup, the 33-year-old re-established himself as Simmons’ direct opponent and prevented the easy penetration drives that fuelled Simmons 48 hours earlier. That changed with Dudley off the court. Simmons and Embiid amped up the aggression in the second half, much the delight of Brett Brown.
“I saw a partnership [with Simmons and Embiid], you especially saw it when we posted Joel, Ben finding open space as his man left behind Joel’s post up,” Brown said. “Defensively you could see them talking about what they are doing in pick-and-rolls. There was a deeper connection after Jimmy was ejected.”
Embiid, who missed Game 3 with left knee tendonitis, played a game that deserves to overshadow all the madness that took place. His statistical output - 31 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 blocks – has only been matched once before in NBA playoff history. He is the first player in 13 years to record at least 30 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocks in a postseason game.
“He was dominant,” said Brown. “He was dominant. There at times where you can see that he is still raw and there are some decisions he would like to have again, but given the volume of playing time that he hasn’t had lately, it is just a dominant performance. What more can you say.”
With Brooklyn downsizing across their roster to find more shot creation, Embiid was given the opportunity to further dominate a Nets team devoid of a suitable matchup. He bullied Brooklyn in the second half, scoring 20 points while playing the majority of his minutes out of the low post. The Sixers offence become stagnant without Butler and their answer was a steady diet of Embiid post-ups.
“We fed him down on the block,” Tobias Harris said of Embiid. “ We knew that was the biggest mismatch on the court and he’s our best player, the most dominant big in the game. We just had to let him go eat out there. We made some great plays on the high-low when Brooklyn tried to front and he was able to be super productive for us and a big reason for our win.”
Butler’s ejection meant that Mike Scott played the majority of the fourth quarter as Philadelphia searched for answers on the wing. In the game’s pivotal moment, as the Sixers trailed by one point with 30 seconds remaining, Scott stepped up and hit the biggest shot of Philadelphia’s season. A Scott three from the left corner gave the Sixers a 110-108 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“My job was to space the floor and be a decoy,” Scott explained of his game winning shot. “Tobias tried to get it to Joel and I think the pass got deflected. Joel made a hell of a hustle play and saw me in the corner. I cashed out.”
As was the case during the entire game, Scott wasn’t the Sixers’ first option, or their second. But on an afternoon that was anything but routine, Scott was the option Philadelphia needed.