Previewing a Sixers/Nets first round matchup

Sixers
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)

The NBA playoffs are just over a week away, and the playoff picture is beginning to round into form. With the Philadelphia 76ers already securing the third seed in the East, the only remaining question for the team is who they will play. At this moment, all signs point toward the Sixers facing off against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs.

Brooklyn is far from the same team that they were at the beginning of the season. One by one, the Nets stars and those expected to be stars have been removed from the active roster, be it due to trade demands or injury. This is now almost a completely new-look team in Brooklyn, and though they are the heavy underdog, the team will not go down without a fight.

Sixers/Nets matchups to watch

When looking at the expected matchups between these two teams, there are a few that come to mind. Sure, the offensive guard battle between James Harden and Spencer Dinwiddie will be exciting, but there are two greater duals that those watching should pay even closer attention to.

The first nearly goes without saying. In any game he plays, Joel Embiid will be involved in a matchup to watch. Against Brooklyn, Embiid’s opponent will be Nic Claxton and the team’s new bevy of lengthy wings. The fourth-year center has made a major leap this season into one of the league’s top defenders at any position.

Claxton boasts the kind of speed, athleticism, and switchability that could give not only Joel Embiid fits but the entire Sixers” team. Embiid has played well against Claxton in the past, averaging over 30 points per game in seven appearances, but with several new, also switchable, wings on the roster, the Nets have the potential to throw nearly endless looks Embiid’s way to frustrate the Sixers’ star.

In addition to what could effectively be summed up as “Embiid vs. the World,” the converse of that matchup will be PJ Tucker/Tobias Harris against former Sixer (for roughly 20 minutes) Mikal Bridges. Since arriving in Brooklyn after the blockbuster Kevin Durant deal, Bridges has seen one of the greatest midseason rises in recent memory.

Over the 25 games he’s played with the Nets, he’s averaged 27.4 points while just a couple of percentage points away from qualifying for the 50/40/90 club. Had he played this way all season, Bridges would be the runaway candidate for Most Improved Player and may win the award regardless.

The Sixers will primarily defend Bridges with PJ Tucker and Tobias Harris, who has become one of the team’s best wing defenders (due both to growth and scarcity). The temptation will surely come at some point for the Sixers to fall into what they call a zone defense, which is more often an excuse to overcommit defensively, but considering the shooters, the Nets boast, they are far better off sticking to man coverage with a heavy focus on limiting Bridges offensively.

Bridges averages 32.5 points per game in wins with Brooklyn and just 23.4 per game in losses.

Outlook

The Sixers will, and should, be heavy favorites in their first-round matchup regardless of the opponent, but that does not mean they can simply overlook them. Brooklyn is now a young team with nothing to lose and everything to gain. The goal should be to finish them off before allowing them to gain any semblance of confidence.

Are the Sixers capable of that? Certainly, but it’s not about what they can do; it’s about what they must do, and what the Sixers must do, which they failed to do last season and it cost them two games of Joel Embiid, is take care of business against a clearly inferior opponent.