NEW YORK -- Some things that Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said about his team's performance on Thursday:
"We didn't do a lot of things right."
"There were so many guys struggling."
"A lot of guys got in their heads."
"I didn't think any of us played well."
The Sixers finished Game 3 of their series against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center with 15 assists and 14 turnovers. They scored just slightly more efficiently than the 26th-ranked Orlando Magic did in the regular season. In the halfcourt, according to Cleaning The Glass, they scored slightly less efficiently than the 26th-ranked Magic did in the regular season. There were plenty of disjointed possessions and mental lapses for Rivers to be upset about.
But he wasn't upset. Despite getting outscored 35-18 in the third quarter, and despite James Harden getting ejected for a push-off "directly to the groin" of the Nets' Royce O'Neale just before the start of the fourth, Philadelphia took a 3-0 lead in their series with a 102-97 win.
Another thing Rivers said: "We just hung in there." He was pleased about that part.
To Rivers, and to veteran P.J. Tucker, this kind of win can be meaningful. Championship-calibre teams need to be able to win high-scoring, free-flowing games and grind-it-out slugfests like this one. The slugfests are Tucker's favorites.
"I told Joel [Embiid] before we started the playoffs, these type of games are the ones you remember if you get to where you want to be," Tucker said. "Those games where you shoot 40 percent and 60 from the free throw and nobody can hit a 3 and you win. Those are the ones. That's when you know you've grown as a team, when you do whatever it takes that night to get the win. And these are the kind of games that build that foundation to be able to win. 'Cause then when you're rolling, it's hard to beat you."
Tucker speaks from experience. Two seasons ago, he played for the Milwaukee Bucks team that, in Game 3 of a second-round series against an extraordinarily different Brooklyn team, shot 36.2% from the field in an 86-83 win, just barely avoiding the 0-3 hole that the present-day Nets have fallen into. Those Bucks went on to win the championship, overcoming more ugly offensive showings along the way. These Sixers are aiming to do the same thing.
The soon-to-be-38-year-old forward described Thursday's game as "interesting," "fun" and "wild." Less than three minutes in, Embiid was assessed a flagrant foul for kicking Nic Claxton in the upper part of his leg as Claxton had stepped over him Allen Iverson-style. Early in the fourth quarter, a few minutes after Harden's ejection, Claxton got himself tossed for taunting Embiid again, this time after a dunk. Philadelphia's Tyrese Maxey went off in crunch time, going on an 8-0 run by himself, but the win was only sealed when O'Neale threw away an inbounds pass with 6.7 seconds on the clock.
"A lot of things going on," Tucker said.
If you believe that ugly wins are character-building or character-affirming, then this was a big one. The Sixers didn't exactly stay composed throughout, but, largely thanks to Tucker hitting the glass and Maxey getting wherever he wanted to go, they made enough timely plays to escape with a win.
"Obviously today wasn't our best game," Embiid said. "The second game was not our best [either]. I expect us to just keep grinding out and finding ways to win and get better every single day."
That is the glass-half-full perspective. Another perspective, though, is that while Philadelphia has a chance to sweep on Saturday, it hasn't been impressive against the Nets. The Sixers have known that Brooklyn is going to send hard double-teams at Embiid virtually every time he touches the ball, and yet they have not consistently enough punished the defense for doing so. They have not gotten to the line the way they did in the regular season, and in the regular season they didn't dominate the boards the way they have recently.
Rivers said that Thursday's scare should be "a teacher for us." Maxey said that, in order to close out the Nets on Saturday, they will need to be "way better than we were," a statement that is triply true as far as their likely second-round matchup with the Boston Celtics is concerned.
It is far too early, though, to know if the Sixers' last two wins will ultimately look like warning signs or encouraging ones. Having gone all the way, Tucker knows exactly how difficult it is. He feels at home playing in grimy games, but he can't say yet whether this particular team will be able to keep winning them.
"I mean, who knows, man? Nobody knows," Tucker said. "Everybody thinks they got a chance right now. There's no rhyme or reason. Everybody can feel good, you win a game and now you think you can win it, yeah. But it's still such a long road. And that's my communication to my team right now: We just worry about one game at a time."
Up 3-0 in the series, it is impossible to argue with Philadelphia's results. The process, however, is another story.