Sixers win ugly in Brooklyn against revamped Nets squad

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Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden, center, shoots against Brooklyn Nets’ Joe Harris, second from left, and Mikal Bridges, right, during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

With firework smoke from the NBA trade deadline dissipating by now, new lineups emerged all around the league this weekend. The Brooklyn Nets had several new faces debut against the Philadelphia 76ers, as a recently traded Hornet sported a blue and white jersey instead of a purple and teal one for the first time. This would also be the first time since the Sixers traded for him that James Harden would play in front of his old home crowd.

The Sixers handled the New York Knicks on Friday night and then turned around to snatch another victory from Brooklyn the next. The trip back home for Joel Embiid and company will be a sweet one as the entire city gets ready for the Super Bowl. Though Philly won in Barclays Center on Saturday, let’s hope the Birds don’t go to the brink of losing the way the Sixers did versus the Nets. This game was brutal to watch despite the final outcome.

At the start, the Sixers struggled. Well, everyone but Joel Embiid and James Harden. Their two-man game was going early as Embiid took advantage of anyone smaller than him in the post. In contrast, Harden drove the lane and hit early 3-pointers to help carry the scoring load. With sloppy turnovers and sluggish shooting from the other three starters, Brooklyn was able to take the lead and sustain it throughout.

The Nets played fluidly and as if they’d been teammates all season. New acquisitions Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson all contributed in ways that would initially seem unlikely. Because of a new city, team, and system for those four players, the 76ers could have banked on a rocky transition, but it was not the case. 

Nic Claxton set the tone defensively, allowing the new players to get out and run after blocks. Brooklyn capitalized on hot shooting early, getting open looks on drives and kick-outs for open 3-pointers. Despite the implementation of zone defense by Doc Rivers, the Nets still found ways to score efficiently. 

The theme of the game for Philly would revolve around the struggles of two starters, Tobias Harris and De’Anthony Melton. Neither could hit the Atlantic Ocean if standing on a Manhattan pier. That’s when the bench kicked in and helped Embiid and Harden.

Georges Niang hit some buckets early, as Shake Milton chipped in as well. Milton exploited an undersized and slower Patty Mills on back-to-back possessions, while Niang knocked down a 3-pointer and a tough layup.

The biggest curiosity for Sixers fans drew attention to Jalen McDaniels, who just came over from the Hornets a few days prior in the Matisse Thybulle trade. Although he did not play versus the Knicks on Friday, he made his debut in Brooklyn at the 4:44 mark in the first quarter. His length, athleticism, and skill were impactful early. He grabbed several boards and made plays defensively to validate the trade Philly made before the deadline.

Ben Simmons, a huge non-factor throughout, tried his best to contain Embiid, but with no luck. The former teammates battled down low, resulting in fouls or scores for Embiid. Simmons ended up with a stat line similar to a city area code (4|3|3) in 16 minutes. When Embiid wasn’t abusing Simmons in the post, he was making ridiculous step-back 3-pointers.

Joe Harris was lights out from beyond the arc, ending with 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting on the night. In transition, he would lag and set up at the 3-point line, where his teammates would dump it off, and he’d launch immediately. The other major factor for Brooklyn was former Villanova player Mikal Bridges.

Bridges, who came over in the Kevin Durant trade, put on a midrange shooting clinic while he pestered Sixers players on defense. He finished with 23 points and swiped two steals in the game. 

By the end of the first half, Brooklyn was up 60-52. If the Sixers were to make a run, they’d do it on the backs of Harden and Embiid.

In the second half, Brooklyn cooled down, and the Sixers went on their own run. Tyrese Maxey took advantage of opponents because of his speed, attacking closeouts, and finishing at the rim. Embiid scored from everywhere on the court, and he feasted from the foul line 13 times. He missed only once.

At times, Harden seemed to force things, getting in trouble with turnovers or taking a badly contested shot, but his persistent scoring is what kept Philly in the game. 

The Nets got constant offense in the second half from Cam Thomas, who made tough shot after tough shot, causing Embiid to shake his head as a defender.

Jalen McDaniels got more run after intermission, doing more than crash the boards and contest shots. On one play, he pump-faked, drove the lane, and made a nice dish to Maxey that ended in a layup. Not a bad debut for McDaniel. His frontcourt mate at times, Paul Reed, had an active game, too. He played 10 minutes and grabbed three rebounds, but he did not score much other than a nice lob dunk he received from Harden.

As the fourth quarter wound down, the Sixers found themselves within a basket in crunch time. Harden got them there with a layup and free throws on consecutive possessions. The Sixers’ point guard then played excellent defense on Dinwiddie, taking a charge on the baseline. Within a basket, Harden then drove left but missed an open layup. Embiid got the rebound and was fouled.

With the game on the line and down by a point, the MVP top candidate knocked down both shots to take the team’s first lead since the initial minutes of the game.

Brooklyn took a last-second desperation shot, but the ball did not leave Dinwiddie’s fingertips in time to count. 

In the end, the Sixers won a game they probably should not have won based on turnovers and poor shooting, but they gutted it out and walked away with a win. 

The Sixers’ next game is Monday night at home against the Houston Rockets.