Sixers start their playoff run against the Nets

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid dribbles during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Philadelphia 76ers are rested and ready as the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference, hoping to take out the Brooklyn Nets on their way to an NBA Championship. The Sixers spent the last two games of the season resting their starters in hopes that having almost two whole weeks off would get the team healthy for a long playoff run.

Who: Brooklyn Nets (0-0) at Philadelphia 76ers (0-0)

When: 1:00 pm EST

Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, Pa.

Watch: ESPN, NBC Sports Philadelphia

Eye on the Sixers

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 17: Philadelphia 76ers Center Joel Embiid (21), Philadelphia 76ers Guard James Harden (1), Philadelphia 76ers Forward P.J. Tucker (17) and Philadelphia 76ers Forward Tobias Harris (12) huddle during a NBA game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Clippers on January 17, 2023 at Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

At the start of the 2021/22 NBA season, if someone had told you that the Brooklyn Nets would be playing the Sixers in the playoffs, you would have thought it would be the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, eighteen months later, this is a 3rd seed Sixers team hoping to send home the 6th seed Nets in quick fashion as they move toward their goal of an NBA title.

This Sixers team is ready; they’ve rested their starters, they’ve completed the regular season as relatively healthy, and in the last two games of the season, they were able to see how the second unit would operate given extended minutes. Players like Shake Milton, Jalen McDaniels, Georges Niang, and Paul Reed didn’t disappoint. The Sixers will need the best from everyone involved if they’re going to make a long run through the playoffs.

This is the year that the Sixers need Joel Embiid and James Harden to change the perception of them both in regard to their playoff performances. Embiid led the league in scoring this season at 33.1 points per game, and Harden led the league in assists with 10.7 per game.

Embiid seems to be the favorite to win his first MVP this year, and despite all of the chatter about having lost a step, Harden may be even more important to the Sixers’ success. Harden is one of the few true NBA superstars that has changed his game as he’s gotten older. At 33 years old, Harden isn’t the player that put up 35 points per game over a two years period. He’s one of the smartest players in the league, and it shows when he’s on the court. His vision, ability, and intelligence set him apart from almost anyone else in the league.

While he’s not scoring as much as he had in his “prime,” Harden is playing some of his best basketball this season, leading the league in assists, still averaging 21 points per game, and he’s shooting 38.5% on his three-point attempts, which is the best he’s shot in over 12 years. This is truly the best version of James Harden.

Embiid, on his way to a likely MVP, will be looking to show the league that he’s not a regular-season monster and that he’s taking the next step in his evolution as a player. Embiid averaged 33.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game during the regular season, which is huge. But, what you may not look at, when you’re just looking at numbers, is the fact that Embiid, when he wanted or was needed, has dominated teams like few others before him.

Embiid has evolved into a unicorn in the league. While the NBA has evolved into a game that features less “positional” play than at any time in the past, Embiid has become the premiere, true center in the league. You can talk about advanced statistics, point centers, defensive centers, etc. Not one of them can compare to what Embiid has become, which is the best and most dominant center in the league.

With all of the talk about the Embiid/Harden duo, we haven’t even discussed the rise of Tyrese Maxey. After missing over a month with an injury, Maxey returned and was coming off the bench. It took a while, but Head Coach Doc Rivers finally saw that was a mistake and put Maxey back in the starting lineup. Since the All-Star break, Maxey has averaged 21.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assists, which are very good stats, especially for a third-year player that isn’t the first option on his team.

That’s not even the best part of Maxey, though. He’s shot 49.7% on his three-point attempts since the All-Star break, bringing his season total to 43.4%, which was good enough for 5th place in the league. This is the second year that Maxey has finished in the top five in three-point percentage, which is remarkable since the one knock on Maxey coming out of college was that he wasn’t a long-range shooter.

The Sixers will need a complete effort from the big three on the squad as well as the rest of the team. PJ Tucker and Tobias Harris need to make sure they’re hitting the shots they get and playing defense at a higher level. Tucker has shown that the playoffs are when he thrives. The Sixers will need the very best out of him. With Niang, Milton, McDaniels, Daniel House Jr., and Paul Reed all having finished the season on high notes, this may be the best version of the Sixers coming together at the perfect time.

Eye on the Nets

Brooklyn Nets forward Mikal Bridges reacts before an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Sunday, April 9, 2023 in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)

Starting the playoffs is exactly what Brooklyn predicted when they put their team together a few years back. They would be one of the top teams in the league and conference while breezing through the playoffs on their way to multiple NBA titles.

That is not the case these days. The Nets originally envisioned Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden all leading the team through the playoffs and dominating the league as had never been seen before. Harden is starring as the best version of himself in Philadelphia; Durant is in Phoenix getting ready to take credit for another very good team’s playoff run, and Irving, well, that’s for another time.

What the Nets do have now is Ben Simmons, acquired from the Sixers in the Harden trade. Wait, no, that’s not right either. Simmons will miss the series as he lacks the spine to play in the league, especially against this version of the Sixers. (Looking over my notes, it seems Simmons is just listed with a back injury)

This version of the Nets is led by Mikal Bridges, and it looks to be his team going forward. Bridges has averaged 26.1 points per game since coming over in exchange for Durant, and he’s added 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists as well. He’s taken his game to a whole new level and looks to be the first real building block that the Nets have had in a few years.

They still have players like Seth Curry, Cam Thomas, Patty Mills, Spencer Dinwiddie, and others that make the Nets not a complete pushover, and they’ll be looking to show the league that they’re a deserving playoff team. This just isn’t the year.

The Sixers are too big, strong, fast, and good for this version of the Nets to compete. It doesn’t matter how much time Simmons spends with the team telling them how to handle or shut down Joel Embiid; it’s just not going to happen.

What to look for

This series will be a hard-fought one, to say the least. The difference is that the Sixers will be looking to get their team operating on all cylinders and run through the Nets while getting themselves together to be the best they can be for the next few rounds of the playoffs.

This series should go to the Sixers, and it shouldn’t be close, but tonight, the Sixers will want to come out and make a statement that they’re going to be a problem for other teams in the playoffs. They’ll start out a little rusty from the starters, basically having two weeks off, but after that, look for the Sixers to run the Nets out of the building.

Prediction: Sixers 121 – Nets 101