Defense optional, Brooklyn blows golden opportunity against Embiid-less 76ers

D+

Final: 04/18/2019

L 115 131

A foot in the door — ultimately, that’s all you ask for.

A chance, an opportunity, a moment to shine. Anything and everything, the Brooklyn Nets wanted to take advantage. And in Game 1, they did, torching Philadelphia’s homecourt advantage from the opening tip, all before getting crushed on the same floor a few days later. Still, they’d done their job heading home to Barclays Center — steal a game and that creeky door leans just a bit more open.

But since then, the off-court madness has only spiced up matters further. Joel Embiid may or may not have intentionally laughed during his apology for elbowing Jarrett Allen — of note, he offered a longer version during pre-game — and Jared Dudley and Ben Simmons had their own public back-and-forth as well. With the Nets looking to prove that they belong, Game 3 loomed as a pivotal moment in series. And then, shockingly, Embiid was ruled out just minutes before the game began.

Consider that proverbial door completely blown open — but only if they could take advantage.

With Embiid shelved, the Nets worked from the inside out, focusing on Allen against former Brooklyn legend Greg Monroe. Although D’Angelo Russell started at a 1-for-5 clip, the rockingly loud arena attempted to push the gritty Nets through the opening frame and then some. DeMarre Carroll and Ben Simmons traded early buckets, the latter of which was booed every time he touched the ball, and the visitors began to pull away. Early turnovers — as if on cue — hurt the Nets’ offensive efforts, but Allen looked hungry and willing to do the tough work against Boban Marjanovic and the aforementioned Monroe.

If all eyes were on Embiid, Simmons and Russell pre-game, then the second quarter belonged to Caris LeVert. Using his deep bag of tricks, LeVert cut and hacked his way into a handful of mini-floaters. 14 straight points. Fourteen. Dragging the Nets all the way back, LeVert got hot from deep too. It goes without saying, but after it looked like LeVert’s career was in jeopardy, it will never get tiring to watch the shifty slasher fill-it-all-up in a flash. Once LeVert went to the bench, Russell gladly picked up the mantle.

But for one smokin’ hot LeVert, the 76ers countered with a smokin’ hot Tobias Harris. Despite haymaker after haymaker — and although never ahead — the Nets always managed to stay just within reach.

Alas, just as it went in Game 2, the good times would not keep rolling into the third quarter. J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris, potentially awarded more shots in lieu of Embiid, continued to beat the Nets at every turn. Joe Harris, the NBA’s most efficient three-point shooter, had been quiet in the series — but this time around, he was crushed defensively too. The electric Redick, who finished with just five points in the series opener, went supernova and hit four three-pointers with ease, only countered by a much-needed Dinwiddie four-point play. 

Heading into the final frame, 97-90, Philadelphia lagged ahead.

Russell, after sitting for most of the third quarter, came out firing in the fourth. After two tough makes and a bold three-pointer, Brooklyn had the lead down to six. If the Nets have taught us anything in 2018-19, it’s that they know how to take a punch and keep on rolling. Russell’s 11 consecutive points — with the added bonus of Marjanovic’s dismissal — gave the Nets hope, but they failed to get meaningful stops for most of the quarter.

In the end, it was too little, too late.

Simmons was a force. Redick was a force. Harris was a force.

Even without Embiid, that’s just too much firepower for the Nets to handle. Hard-fought, per usual, but it wasn’t meant to be. At moments, the offense has looked good in this series — maybe even great. But that defense, ugly. Against an elite squad like Philadelphia, that’s a recipe for disaster over and over and over again.

Unfortunately for the Nets, they’ve only got two overs left in the season at this rate.

As for that foot in the door? Slammed shut. That fleeting opportunity? Stamped out.

Back to the drawing board, where the Nets will hurriedly search for that team that took the country by surprise in Game 1.

Until then, this series is on life support.

D'Angelo Russell

B-

The stats: 26 PTS, 12-26 FG, 4 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL, 3 TO

D’Angelo Russell is still searching for a scorching-hot first quarter in this series, but the Nets absolutely struggled without him firing away. Despite his 3-for-8 mark in the opening 12 minutes, the Nets instantly fell behind once he moved to the bench.

And yet, he never quite found his groove today, setting for off-balance elbow attempts all night. The difference between the rim-attacking Spencer Dinwiddie and Russell was evidently clear tonight too, with the latter suffering badly from not getting downhill a bit more. Of course, getting schemed by the 76ers’ elite defense will force you into those shots, literally — but still.

Bottom line: Russell struggled so the Nets did too — it’s really that simple.

And that’s why his improved fourth quarter was even more striking in comparison. 11 straight points helped keep the dream alive for a few more minutes, but it was all for naught. Impressively, it came from all over the floor too in classic Russell fashion.

The Nets will need him to do a whole lot more to keep this series competitive, unfair as that pressure may be.

Spencer Dinwiddie

B-

The stats: 15 PTS, 5-13 FG, 4 REB

With Russell struggling to get it going, Dinwiddie and LeVert shared the all-important role of keeping the Nets within striking distance. Dinwiddie, aggressive and chirpy as always, did his very best, including some crucial makes when Redick threatened to put it away for good.

Although he picked up a technical foul for complaining, the Nets must get Dinwiddie’s infectious hunger to flow throughout the rotation.

Caris LeVert

A

The stats: 26 PTS, 10-17 FG, 7 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL

Caris. Freakin’. LeVert.

Hack. Slash. Cut. Bombs. Floaters. Boom.

In that magical second quarter, LeVert had everything on full display. With the Nets struggling to find their offense, the tweener was more than happy to take control. In the second half, he tried his best to carry the weight for Brooklyn — and he almost pulled it off too.

Jarrett Allen

C+

The stats: 15 PTS, 4-5 FG, 6 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 3 TO

Hungry Jarrett Allen is the best Jarrett Allen.

Perhaps feeling a bit disrespected in the moments after Game 2, Allen looked like a new man back home. He skied for rebounds, drew fouls and flexed a little bit to boot. Allen badly needed to find another level with Embiid out and, tonight, he most certainly did early on.

And then, like nothing, Allen barely made a dent in the second half at all, even with Ed Davis out for the night.

Not great.

Jared Dudley

F

The stats: 0 PTS, 0-2, 2 TO

Not a great showing for Jared Dudley after his war of words in the media.

Simmons, on the other hand, finished with 31 points and nine assists on 11-for-13, so…

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