Joel Embiid bowled over defenders and blew up the Brooklyn Nets' schemes during a decisive fourth-quarter run Saturday, producing a 112-108 Philadelphia 76ers win that highlighted the contrast between two teams embroiled in the NBA's hottest playoff rivalry.
Embiid overpowered Brooklyn down the stretch at Barclays Center, scoring eight straight points to help give the Sixers a 3-1 series lead. Mike Scott's decisive three with 19.7 seconds to go was a direct result of the Nets' lack of an answer for Embiid's physicality. With three bodies committed to stopping him, there was no one to bother Scott when the ball found him open in the left corner:
Not to minimize the skill involved, but Embiid's takeover was about relentless force. And really, that makes perfect sense because that's how these Sixers are built: They overwhelm with top-end talent. When they're at their best, they go through their opponents.
That's a tough matchup for a Nets team that has spent the last several years learning how to work around obstacles.
Brooklyn, without control of its first-round pick since 2013, never had a chance to build around a player like Embiid—someone who could put up a playoff line not seen since Tim Duncan in 2003...on a bad knee:
Instead, the Nets had to wheel and deal to get where they are. They swung trades for late first-rounders, took on bad money, adopted distressed assets, made themselves a home for castoff vets and developed the imperfect talent they acquired.
That's how you get a playoff team led in turns by Caris LeVert's shifty handle, D'Angelo Russell's cold-blooded shooting and Spencer Dinwiddie's chip-on-his-shoulder drives. Those three survive on craft. They attack creases, play with guile and can't just overpower opponents like Embiid and Ben Simmons can.
The Sixers didn't just stumble into their traditionally potent roster, of course. They put plenty of thought into building it. But the point of the Process was always to maximize the chance of getting someone like the 7'0", 250-pound Embiid, someone who provides an undeniable physical advantage. In one sense, Philadelphia thought hardest about how to reach a point where thinking wouldn't matter much at all. You could distill the Sixers' plan down to: Get Embiid. Watch him dominate.
The Nets never had that luxury.
Given the contrast in construction and mentality, there's no wonder we're seeing these teams clash.
Then things came to a head Saturday when Embiid laid Allen out on a block that was mostly clean but definitely aggressive, triggering a shoving match that spilled into the stands.
Dudley and Jimmy Butler both got tossed for their roles in the dustup:
That altercation proved Brooklyn is no less fierce or competitive than its bigger, stronger, more renowned opponent. But it was telling that Embiid's method of attack against Dudley after the final buzzer zeroed in on the discrepancy in star power that defines this series:
That's dismissive, but it's not entirely wrong. The Nets aren't a collection of well-known somebodies. They're guys who've either forged reputations from obscurity or salvaged diminished ones.
Naturally, given their talent constraints, the Nets have a much smaller margin for error than the Sixers do. When things go wrong—which they very much did during a 5-of-19, six-turnover (five on their final 10 possessions) fourth quarter—the Nets look exactly like a team built without superstars. They appear overmatched, and you sometimes catch yourself marveling at how they stood level with an opponent as imposing as Philadelphia for as long as they did.
Meanwhile, when the Sixers hit adversity, the solutions are uncomplicated.
Yes, the Nets are down 3-1. For all their grit, smarts and defiance, they're on the edge of elimination.
But if you're built like they are, getting knocked down like this probably feels familiar. The Nets are an organization that succeeded, despite having no clear paths to prosperity. Resourcefulness and resiliency define them.
Just think of what Brooklyn has tried in this series.
It's gone small. It's played zone. It's scrambled all over the floor to flummox Embiid. It's attacked JJ Redick at every opportunity. It's changed the starting lineup (Dudley and LeVert started over DeMarre Carroll and Rodions Kurucs in Game 4).
When you've spent a half-decade building a franchise without lottery picks, you get comfortable with the kitchen sink approach. You've got to try everything, embrace what works and scrap what doesn't.
Adjustments define playoff series, but the Nets have been making more of them than anyone else over the last few years. Don't discount the possibility they'll make another one ahead of Game 5.