Nets Playoff Preview: Sixers Too Tall Of A Task To Make It Interesting
The answer to the question as to which of the three elite Eastern Conference teams between the Bucks, Celtics, and Sixers would the Nets match up best with is: D) None of the above.
Sorry, but the fact that Brooklyn drew Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals as the sixth seed is no cause for optimism. It beats dropping into the play-in like last season, but the Sixers, despite the historical postseason underachievements of stars Joel Embiid and James Harden, are really good. And the Nets, post the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving trades, are not. Anyone in the media attempting to manufacture a competitive best-of-seven series on paper is doing its readers/viewers a disservice.
Of course, games aren’t played on paper. This is just basketball, so it’s possible for the Nets to take advantage of a Philly squad unwilling to give their opponent the proper respect. They could even steal one, like they did in the opener of the 2019 first round series between the two clubs, when the Sixers needed that wakeup call to take the next four games.
It’s also more likely that the games in this series turn into bloodbaths. It may be hard to believe, but that 2019 Nets iteration had more offensive talent than this one, more players who could reliably generate a bucket. Of the top five players who will take the floor for Saturday’s Game 1 at the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers will boast four of them. Congrats to Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges for making this imaginary cut.
Philadelphia will have the edges in size, creativity, and shotmaking. Their team defense, with the addition of P.J. Tucker to hound (incessantly foul) opponent’s top wing scorers and Embiid in drop coverage to protect the rim, is also superior to Brooklyn’s, despite the hype about the Nets newly-acquired role players who are supposedly built for these moments. And for all the talk about Brooklyn’s three-point shooting depth and how it can be this great equalizer, it was the Sixers who led the league in three-point percentage this season. Since the February 9 trade deadline, the Nets ranked 20th. And I can guarantee that the eye test will show that the looks the Sixers will get from behind the arc during this series will be much cleaner than what the Nets will see, because Philadelphia has multiple playmakers at their disposal who can beat their man off the dribble and force help.
Now let’s get back to the underlying issue of Brooklyn not having an answer for MVP candidate Embiid. It’s true that not many teams do, but the Nets are particularly susceptible to getting overwhelmed given their roster construction. Nic Claxton is their sole big who warrants rotation minutes, so any foul trouble would put Brooklyn in a scary predicament. Embiid, who placed second in the league in free throw attempts per game thanks to his size/athleticism combination and a whole bag of fakes that get defenders to recklessly reach, will have a field day should Head Coach Jacque Vaughn be forced to go with sophomore Day’Ron Sharpe or, even worse, opt to play small with either of Dorian Finney-Smith or Royce O’Neale assigned to the task.
The Nets’ only chance to stay withing striking distance is to get the ball out of Embiid’s hands and then live or die at the shooting strokes of Philadelphia’s three-point marksmen. The Sixers often make it difficult to double effectively by posting Embiid between the elbows, where he can more easily spot the open outlet. This will put the Nets in scramble mode virtually all game, which is hard to sustain.
You can toss out the previous four meetings, especially the meaningless season finale that featured the third stringers, that all went in Philly’s favor. Still, the third matchup on February 11 was rather instructive in that the Nets played as well as they could for a first game that integrated four new starters before dropping a 101-98 decision.
The Sixers closed that game out with a 14-2 run over the last seven minutes. Again, not unusual for the circumstances. However, Brooklyn’s crunch time struggles in that contest were not an anomaly related to unfamiliarity. They’ve had ten “clutch” games since, defined by NBA.com as those that were within a five-point margin in the last five minutes. The Nets’ offensive rating in these possessions was a 20th-ranked 102.9. In the last three weeks, they blew a pair of winnable games down the stretch against Cleveland and another versus Minnesota, all at home, because their offense devolved into point guard Spencer Dinwiddie pounding the rock until late in the shot clock, when all his options dried up and he was forced to take contested shots. In the minutes of those ten close games, Dinwiddie has attempted more field goal attempts (22) than Bridges, Claxton, and Cam Johnson combined.
Should the Nets hang with the Sixers deep into the fourth quarter in any of these games, who has confidence that they know what to do to pull it out? Dinwiddie, for all the excellent floor management he was shown down the stretch of the season, isn’t KD or Kyrie. Or even 2019 Caris LeVert.
If not for NetsDaily.com, I would have been oblivious to the silly social media feud between Dinwiddie and Washington’s Kyle Kuzma. However, I will agree with Kuzma on one point: The Nets are only here because Durant and Irving gave them a tremendous head start before they bailed. So, whether they’re dispatched in four or five games, does it really matter?
Prediction: Sixers in 4