The Philadelphia 76ers took back home-court advantage in their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets with Thursday's 131-115 victory in Game 3 at Barclays Center.
The third-seeded 76ers split the first two in Philadelphia with the sixth-seeded Nets but played like the favorite in their first road game of the series to seize momentum.
Ben Simmons led the way for Philadelphia with 31 points, nine assists and four rebounds, picking up the slack for the absent Joel Embiid, who missed the contest with a knee injury. Tobias Harris (29 points, 16 rebounds), Jimmy Butler (16 points, seven assists) and JJ Redick (26 points) provided plenty of support.
D'Angelo Russell (26 points) and Caris LeVert (26 points, seven boards) spearheaded the offense for the Nets but didn't have enough firepower to overcome the visitors.
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Not many players will face more pressure in a first-round game than Simmons did in Thursday's contest.
For one, it was up to him to carry the offense with Embiid sidelined. But he also put himself firmly in the spotlight with much of the back-and-forth in this series, to the point role player Jared Dudley was calling him average.
Simmons and Embiid each laughed during their press conference when the big man apologized for drilling Jarrett Allen with an elbow in Game 2. LeVert and Dudley were among those who took issue with the laughing, with the former calling it "disrespectful," per Ian Begley of ESPN.com.
That Dudley said he "felt a certain type of way for it" was notable because he also said Simmons was "average" in the half court despite being "a great player in transition," per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.
Dudley helped thwart Simmons in Game 1, as the point guard finished with nine points, three assists and three turnovers. However, he exploded for a triple-double in Game 2 when Dudley was sidelined and couldn't have been more dismissive of the "average" comments:
With all due respect to Dudley, he poked the wrong bear.
The All-Star picked his spots in transition but was particularly effective in the half court (11-of-13 overall) and used the space Brooklyn gave him to his advantage by building a head of steam and attacking the basket to either finish at the rim or force defenders to collapse and open space for his teammates.
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The 76ers have three 25-point scorers (Simmons, Harris, Redick) in a playoff game for the 1st time since Game 3 of the 1978 Conference Semis vs the Knicks. That night, it was Julius Erving, George McGinnis and World B. Free. That's the only other instance in the last 50 seasons. https://t.co/HweUR94l2Y
He also embraced the hate he received from the crowd and didn't back down from the challenge with an assertiveness that led to efficiency in the half court and clean looks for Harris and Redick. The jump shot is still an issue for Simmons, but he posted up at times, attacked from the top of the key and worked into openings that would shift defensive focus his way and free up the shooters.
Redick drilled five three-pointers and poured in 16 points in the third quarter alone, while Harris connected on all four of his triples in the first half—in large part because Simmons was attracting so much attention. With Harris' size-aided ability to shoot over Brooklyn's wings and Redick needing the smallest sliver of space, even the slight hesitation Simmons caused led to plenty of threes.
Though a better jump shot would make Simmons a complete player, he is anything but average. Dudley and the Nets found that out the hard way Thursday.
Brooklyn's Shot at an Upset Is Gone
Every upset has a moment when it turns into a reality.
Brooklyn missed its moment Thursday.
Embiid was ruled out minutes before the game, which should have been a disaster for the 76ers. After all, their net rating when he was on the floor during the regular season was plus-8.0 compared to an abysmal minus-3.3 when he was off it, per NBA.com. Their defensive rating was also 103.3 when he was on the court and 109.1 when he wasn't.
The center is a go-to option on offense, but his ability to anchor the interior defense is the most important thing for the Sixers. They gave up an average of 120.3 points per night in three late-season games against the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves when he was out and figured to be as vulnerable as ever without him in Game 3.
Turns out they weren't.
The Nets didn't give Allen enough looks in the middle with Embiid sidelined, as he was an efficient 4-of-5 from the field and could have used his size to keep his team within striking distance.
LeVert deserves credit for keeping Brooklyn close with 19 first-half points, while Russell carried the offense for stretches in the second half. However, it was far from enough as the home team missed a golden opportunity to seize control of the series with Philadelphia's best player and driving force sidelined.
The 76ers were, frankly, below average at best without Embiid this season, and the Nets were at home and had their best chance to pull the upset.
Philadelphia will only get better when its big man returns, and it is clear Simmons is ready to take over after the trash talk in this series. The Nets are headed toward a first-round exit.
Brooklyn will host Game 4 on Saturday.