Time: 2:30 PM EST
Location: Wells Fargo Center
Listen: WFAN 101.9, 660 AM
The Brooklyn Nets are in the playoffs for what feels like the first time in a decade.
The No. 6 seeded Nets will travel to Philadelphia for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference’s First Round — whew, just read that back a few times.
Brooklyn had to fight for every win down the stretch, facing competition from Orlando, Detroit, Miami and Charlotte for the final three playoff spots. But behind D’Angelo Russell and the resurgent Caris LeVert, the Nets earned a playoff spot in their penultimate game of the season. The Nets haven’t made the playoffs since the 2014-15 season, where they fell in six games to the Atlanta Hawks. That Nets team — consisting of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez — was the last before the Marks-Atkinson era.
It’s safe to say things have improved in the post-Billy King days.
Despite splitting the season series at two games apiece, the 76ers are a much better team than the one Brooklyn beat twice before the New Year. In early February, Philly acquired Brooklyn native Tobias Harris from the Clippers in exchange for Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala and multiple draft picks, including two first-rounders. The Sixers also received Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to help make up for their weakened bench. The 76ers — who snagged Jimmy Butler in November — has one of the most talented starting fives in the NBA. Behind Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Butler, Harris, and Joel Embiid, the Sixers most certainly earned the No. 3 seed.
Brooklyn’s last matchup against Philly — Mar. 28 — came in the final game of their seven-game road trip. The Nets fell 123-110 and looked like a team who just wanted to sleep in their own beds. Despite the Nets nearly being at full health — minus Allen Crabbe — that game will not be a preview of the ones to come.
Crabbe, who hasn’t played since Mar. 13, will likely remain sidelined for the rest of the season after opting to get arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Crabbe appeared in only 43 games this season, averaging 9.6 points and shooting just under 38 percent from deep.
Fortunately for Brooklyn, Crabbe is the only Net expected to miss time. DeMarre Carroll — who injured his right wrist last Sunday in Indiana — is expected to play Saturday. Joe Harris, dealing with right foot soreness, will most likely be good to go as well. Head coach Kenny Atkinson held both starters out in the regular season finale, just to be safe.
For the Sixers, Embiid’s status for Game 1 is uncertain. Philly general manager Elton Brand said “it’s possible” that Embiid will sit Saturday. Other than Embiid, the Sixers enter the series healthy.
If they have any hope of advancing to the second round, the Nets must spoil Philly’s home court advantage. And if Embiid sits, the opportunity is there for the taking.
Three Things To Watch Out For:
1. Jarrett Allen vs. Joel Embiid
It wasn’t pretty the last time Allen and Embiid matched up. The Process torched the Fro for 39 points and 13 rebounds. Even worse, Embiid scored 28 of his 39 in the first half, prompting Atkinson to sit Allen, in favor of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, for the entire second half. Allen played his fewest minutes of the season in that game, only 8:44.
To be fair, Embiid dominates the majority of NBA big men, averaging 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds per game. Allen, who took a noticeable leap in his development this season, still struggles against stronger centers. JaVale McGee, Enes Kanter and Tristan Thompson, just to name a few, have plagued Allen this season.
Jarrett Allen’s isn’t expected to shut down Embiid. Instead, containment is the name of the game for the Nets’ second-year center. For Allen to contain Embiid, he must keep him off the glass. It’s easier said than done, as this was the plan in their last matchup. The tried Nets leave Embiid relatively open from beyond the arc as he shoots 30 percent from deep — so it made sense not to get in his face. However, Embiid knocked down three of his four threes in the game.
The logic was that if Embiid plays from a more Brook Lopez-adjacent role his decreased paint presence will limit his overall box score influence.
While that wasn’t the case in their last matchup, a well-rested Nets team should have much more success at guarding Embiid.
2. The Bench Battle
Very few NBA benches rival the Nets’— in fact, Brooklyn’s bench ranks second in the league in scoring at 47.7 points per game. The Sixers rank 27th, scoring just 31.4 points per game.
Spencer Dinwiddie leads the Nets with just under 17 PPG. Caris LeVert, who has regained his pre-injury form, has been lethal since adapting to his new role. The guard tandem will continue to pester opposing teams’ benches, especially the short-handed Sixers. This, honestly, might be the biggest key to pushing the series beyond the minimum.
In addition to Dinwiddie and LeVert, Ed Davis is a nightmare in the paint and tops the Nets with 8.6 rebounds per game. Brooklyn’s heart and soul, Jared Dudley, brings energy every time he steps on the court. Dudley — who kept several late Nets possessions alive — almost single-handedly won Saturday’s game against the Bucks.
The Sixers’ bench is composed of T.J. McConnell, Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, James Ennis, Jonah Bolden, Amir Johnson and Jonathon Simmons. This unit will struggle to stop Brooklyn’s second unit, something the Nets must capitalize on each game of the series.
3. The Turnover Game
Despite finishing the season above .500 (42-40), the Nets still give the ball away at an alarming rate — 14.4 turnovers per game. Brooklyn ranks sixth in the NBA in that stat. The 76ers, however, are practically level with them in that regard. Albeit only committing just 0.2 more turnovers per game than Brooklyn, Philadelphia plays like a different team when they don’t take care of the ball. If the Nets can get into the open court — paging Dr. Kurucs, paging Dr. Kurucs — then things will get much tighter on the scoreboard.
Ball pressure, especially from the second unit, will be key if Brooklyn hopes to win.
Buckle up and enjoy the ride though — Nets playoff basketball is finally back!