Two seasons ago, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets finished with the two worst record in the Eastern Conference. On Saturday, they’ll tip off IN an NBA playoff series.
The Sixers made their leap a year ago, riding the talents of top-three draft picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, then fortified this season with trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris on the way to winning 51 games and claiming the third seed.
The Nets worked around the margins a bit more, prioritizing an internal development program while nailing late first-round draft picks, spying potential in players who had been cut loose, and swinging a bold trade for a high-end talent D’Angelo Russell.
It’s come together this season in a 42-40 record and the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2015.
“Isn’t that the greatest thing about the NBA? They did it one way and we kind of did it the other,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. “They’ve had great success and great players. We just did it a different way. That’s the beauty of the NBA. There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat. We took our particular situation and took another approach, and here we are playing against each other. It’s great.”
So after three springs of putting the balls away in mid-April, the Nets are prepping for more basketball. It will be the first playoff experience for several of them, among them D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. For Atkinson, it will be his first trip to the postseason as a head coach.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said Atkinson. “It’s so much more exciting that it’s like a new season, not to be corny or cliché about it. I feel re-energized. When the playoffs come, it’s much more scouting-based. During the season, there’s so many games that we focus more on ourselves. A day like today, it’s like the NFL. You’re focused on the other team. You spend hours and hours getting into detail of what the other team is doing. I enjoy that because I don’t get to do that a lot. The assistants get to do it with the scouts. This is when I can really dive into the strengths and weaknesses of the team we’re playing.”
They’re intent on making the trip worthwhile, not being a footnote for the higher-seeded Sixers.
“We’re very excited to be here,” said LeVert. “Obviously we’re very fortunate, blessed to be here. But right now we’re looking forward to winning some games and shocking some people and doing what we know we’re capable of doing.”
The Sixers present a daunting challenge for the Brooklyn defense, particularly with their high-powered starting lineup. It starts with 7-foot center Joel Embiid, the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer (27.5 ppg), who will operate facing the basket as much or more than in the post. Embiid shoots well enough and often enough from 3-point range — 30 percent on 4.1 attempts per game — that he can spread out a defense, or punish it for not guarding him out at the line.
The 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons, who actually averages more rebounds (8.8) than assists (7.7) adds to the unique challenge of defending the Sixers. Brooklyn’s own backcourt size — Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Joe Harris are all at least 6-6 — gives the Nets some flexibility in choosing matchups.
“I think matchups may not be as conventional as point guard on point guard, shooting guard on shooting guard,” said Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie. “We’ll see how that all works out. We’re going to do what we can do to try and make them play our style, just like they’re going to try and make us play theirs.”
RUSSELL HAS HISTORY WITH SIMMONS, EMBIID
Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell was teammates with Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at Florida’s Montverde Academy, though not at the same time.
“It must have been a hell of a high school team,” said Kenny Atkinson of the Russell/Simmons backcourt pairing. “I hope they won the mythical national championship.”
Russell and Simmons did, in back-to-back seasons. The trio went in the top three of the draft in three consecutive years from 2014 to 2016.
“It’s great for the league how young those guys are,” said Atkinson. “I don’t remember a time in NBA history where there are so many young stars, guys that are at this early age that are very dominating teams. How old is Ben, 22, 21? Teams that are competing for championships, in the past, it was older guys. Now you’ve got younger guys leading the charge. But I think it’s cool. It’s great they went to high school together, and they’re friends. Pretty cool.”
CHANGES IN PHILLY
This will be the Brooklyn’s second look at the third incarnation of the Sixers this season. Before Philadelphia traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler, the Nets beat them 122-97 at Barclays Center on Nov. 4. After the Butler deal, the two teams split a pair of games November and December.
The Sixers added forward Tobias Harris in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 6. The two deals gave Philadelphia a formidable starting lineup, but cut into the Sixers’ depth.
“A lot different just because what they do now is when they sub they keep at least two guys in there,” said Jared Dudley of today’s Sixers vs. the team the Nets played back on Nov. 4. “I looked at the last time all four of them played it was our game, so they haven’t played together with their starting five since that time. Obviously, it’s been different with injuries and load management. Having two of them in there you still have Tobias and JJ (Redick) or you have Butler and (Ben) Simmons. It’s a totally different team with more firepower.”
ABOUT THE SIXERS
The Philadelphia 76ers finished third in the Eastern Conference with a 51-31 record. Philadelphia finished the regular season fourth in points per game (115.2) and eighth in offensive rating (111.5). The Sixers were also fourth in rebounding (48.0) and assists (26.9). Center Joel Embiid was fourth in the NBA in scoring (27.5) and second in rebounding (13.6). Tobia Harris averaged 18.2 points and 7.9 rebounds after arriving in Philadelphia, while Jimmy Butler averaged 18.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists. J. J. Redick averaged 18.1 points while shooting 39.7 percent from 3-point range, while Ben Simmons averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.7 assists.
Published at Fri, 12 Apr 2019 18:59:35 +0000