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FILM STUDY: Keys to the Sixers Series

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Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Philly it is.

It’s been a roller coaster of a year for the Brooklyn Nets that has seen its fair share of lows, but an incredible amount of highs for a team that went into the season projected for 50 losses per Vegas sportsbooks. Now, it is onto the postseason, where the Nets are slotted to take on a team they are familiar with in the 76ers.

The Sixers are a star-laden team but have shown some issues throughout the year as they have acquired two All-Star level players in two separate deals, trading for forwards Jimmy Butler in November followed with the late-night move to land Tobias Harris at the trade deadline. Both will be unrestricted free agents this summer and while it is not a given they leave, it is not set in stone that they will stay.

Beyond Butler and Harris, the Sixers are no slouches. They have arguably the best true center in the league in Joel Embiid, who has continued to terrorize the league with his ability to handle the ball, shoot it from deep, and of course finish inside with ease. The 7’0” big is truly a do-it-all threat and is going to be the biggest cause for concern for Brooklyn (as long as he plays). In the four games against the Nets this season, Embiid averaged a stat line of 30 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists on 60% shooting from the field, 45% from the three-point line, and 80% from the line.

Embiid will make life very difficult for the Nets thin front court and this will be a particular challenge for second year big Jarrett Allen as well as Ed Davis off the bench. Kenny Atkinson has tinkered with putting Jared Dudley or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on centers at times this season, typically ones that meander around the three-point line more often, but Embiid may simply be too big for Dudley or RHJ. We’ll see if Atkinson tries to change it up with different lineups early in the series to see what can work in stretches if the traditional centers get into trouble.

But Embiid can beat you in so many different ways. He has the ability to pull it from three with ease, and handle the ball moving downhill. Allen has a tendency to come down the court and start in the paint on defensive end, but that scouting report has to (and I expect will) recognize Embiid’s tendencies now that it is the postseason. The Nets like to push the pace, and while the postseason may lean towards a slower game, the Nets can’t get burned like this below clip in the semi transition by the biggest man on the floor.

I expect the Nets to be more aware of this type of quick hitter and pick up Embiid farther up court, but it is something that in a postseason game can not happen. Embiid had a usage rate of 33% this season, meaning a third of Sixer plays when he is on the floor funnels through him. The Nets have to be ready for the full serving of Embiid.

Past Embiid, the other cornerstone of “The Process” —Ben Simmons— presents Brooklyn with an interesting opportunity. Simmons is currently unwilling to shoot jump shots and it caused issues for the Sixers last postseason against the Boston Celtics in terms of spacing and this Nets team can take advantage, especially if Embiid is out. With Simmons, the Nets can put Rodions Kurucs on him, but it may be a nice wrinkle in conventional wisdom to put someone like DeMarre Carroll on him. DMC is a more heady defender who can play more of a free safety as the series trudges on. Can they figure out ways to check Simmons by stopping his ability to drive down hill, while giving him the ability to hang out beyond the arc off the ball?

However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Simmons is a devastating off-ball threat as a cutter.

Notice this is with Embiid in, as this is where Philly’s athleticism can break games wide open if the Nets hit a cold spell from three. There is no denying that Brett Brown’s club has the athletic advantage, but there are chances for Brooklyn to make runs at different points in the game due to a substantial advantage they have: the bench.

The Nets bench has been a key determinant in their success this season, posting an average of 47.7 points per game prior to the Nets finale against Miami. being one of the best in the league. The Sixers on the other hand lack the depth Brooklyn has, posting the 27th best bench scoring mark, averaging 31.4 points per game. With this discrepancy, it could be a big series for Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie has changed his game a bit since returning from thumb surgery in the middle of the season, becoming more of a slasher and a secondary ball handler as his three-point shot hasn’t been as much of a threat. Dinwiddie, though, can thrive in this series as the Nets motion offense can open up lanes for the 6’6” guard to get downhill and barrel into the lane. Dinwiddie’s become incredibly effective at initiating contact and drawing fouls, but he also must be willing to kick the ball out and get the Philadelphia defense on its toes. If Dinwiddie can regain his form, which he’s shown flashes of doing (such as in the fourth quarter of the Indiana game Sunday), the Nets can take advantage of a weak Philly second unit.

This play is from much earlier in the season so the faces look a bit different, but the sentiment is the same. Dinwiddie can blow by T.J. McConnell (more about him in a bit) and get into the lane, and if Embiid isn’t on the floor, he is going to be able to finish at the rim. He is adept at finishing through contact and is strong enough to fend off Sixers’ help defenders, even Simmons if he is in.

It must be stated that Philly has such a drop off because they are all-in on their starting five carrying them, and that five is capable of piling it on, as it proved over and over during various points of the season. The Nets are a different type of team that counts on their depth, and when the Sixers eventually give their top of the line starters a break, the Nets are capable of turning the game on its head with hot shooting, constant motion, and possible mismatches.

One player that struggled against Brooklyn is backup guard T.J. McConnell. In the season series, the Sixers allowed 131 points per 100 possessions in 68 minutes with McConnell on the floor against Brooklyn. McConnell is a pesky guard but with the likes of D’Angelo Russell and Dinwiddie likely being his primary responsibilities on defense, he’ll face two Net guards who can use their size and speed advantage to get free and get cooking while some of the stronger defensive players catch their breath. Keep an eye on how Atkinson utilizes minutes in this series as the Nets strong second unit can keep them afloat throughout.

When the Sixers give J.J. Reddick a breather, the Nets may want to switch defensive assignments and show some zone defense, which they have played at times this season. Reddick is a prototypical zone buster, a quick shooter that can be freed with simple action to negate the Nets defense. However, past Reddick, Tobias Harris is the only wing threat from three that strikes fear into Brooklyn in this case. This also can mitigate the effect Jimmy Butler has at times. Butler loves to pound the rock and isolate himself on the wing to find his shot. If the Nets run an effective zone that can limit his ability to do what he is comfortable doing and make him more of a spot up threat.

The Nets are going to need to be tactically savvy in this series if they want to win. The Sixers may have more talent, but with the right moves throughout games the Nets can leverage situations.

On the Nets offense, it, as always, goes as far as D’Angelo Russell takes it. Russell, in his first postseason, will be tested against this Sixer team as they have many options to throw at him and try to slow him down, but it may be best for the Nets to run primary action for Russell coming off of a high ball screen and see if he can find wings spotting up back outside.

When Russell eventually wiggles free with the ball in the pick-and-roll, he can get cooking from the mid-range. Rotations aren’t set, but only one Sixer big has the capability of hanging with Russell on a defensive switch and that’s Jonah Bolden, who is coming on nicely, but the rookie will be in his first postseason. Either way, Russell should be able to handle him off the bounce. Embiid or Boban Marjnovic will likely drop down and give Russell some space to finish. Russell finished the season shooting nearly 46% on mid-range pull ups this season, on more than five attempts per game, a solid mark, but if Russell can up that to over 50% in this series, Brett Brown may have to change his defensive scheme.

Again, this clip is from several months ago so things have changed. Embiid will likely be playing firmer defense and not giving up on the typical play, but Russell has also exploded onto the scene as an offensive maestro since this game. Russell’s step back is pure, and Embiid dropping back on the screen to contain may not work if the Ohio State product is too comfortable. But if Embiid tries to check him at on a hard hedge, Allen will be diving to the rim, or Russell may be able to beat him off the bounce still. This inner battle between the point guard in the center will be a fun battle to keep an eye on all series.

Caris LeVert’s emergence over the past several weeks can’t go unnoticed as the Nets enter the playoffs in with a three-game winning streak, fueled by the 6’7” wing. LeVert is starting to find his three-point shot and in turn finishing around the rim with relatively more ease. LeVert may come in with the second unit, but he and Russell have been playing very well together. The two of them picking their spots of when to penetrate into the lane and either finish with a nifty floater or kick it out to someone on the outside to reset.

Russell gets pressured by Eric Bledsoe full court and makes it an unusual screen spot for Ed Davis, but Russell gets around and starts his move into the lane. Treveon Graham is at the top of the key, but Khris Middleton can’t give Russell the easy path to the rim so he keeps a foot in the paint. Russell sees Middleton overcommitting, kicks it out, and starts the next action by Brooklyn, a dribble handoff to LeVert who gets into the paint and finishes. The Nets are going to need to utilize a lot of dribble handoffs in this series to try and get a step on Philly’s long-armed wings. There is going to be a lot of switching but the Nets three primary ball handlers – Russell, LeVert, and Dinwiddie – will need that step going downhill to draw fouls or even get all the way to the rim.

Prior to Wednesday’s Heat game, the five game stretch that saw the Nets play formidable playoff foes, LeVert and Russell had the Nets scoring at over 119 points per 100 possessions in 64 minutes together, best of any duo that played over 50 minutes together. LeVert is coming on strong, and looks to be a great second option to Russell this postseason. LeVert’s ability to guard bigger wings also helps him play both the 2 and the 3, as he can be counted on to hang with Butler and Harris, but in spurts can help fend off Simmons making him easy to plug in to the lineup.

Where the Nets are going to need to show resiliency is on the glass. Embiid is going to be a problem, while Simmons is an athlete with a nose for the ball. The Nets are underdogs who for the most part haven’t even smelled the postseason in their young careers. They need to match Philly’s intensity by winning the battle on the glass and limit the second chance opportunities. That’s a big job.

The Nets allowed an average of 11 offensive rebounds per game this season, tied for 22nd in the league. That number is going to have to be mitigated if the Nets want to hang in this series. For Brooklyn, the assertiveness they showed in Indiana, a very disciplined club, needs to be on display in this series. The Nets have embraced this underdog role all season, and it will not end here.

These are some of the key points to this series. I didn’t make much mention of the incredibly talented Harris who is going to play a role in this series. The Nets only saw Harris once this season in a Sixer jersey in their final regular season meeting back in March and while his numbers don’t jump off the page, Harris is a sound defender who can take over games quickly. Jimmy Butler sunk the Nets earlier this season off the dribble, he can’t be forgotten. There just wasn’t enough space. In short, the Nets need to try and contain the Sixers starting five and try to feast on their second unit.

The Nets should be proud of this season, it is an accomplishment to increase a win total by 50 percent in a year. This has been one of the most fun seasons I can remember and I expect this roster is just scratching the surface. However I think that this Sixer team is simply too talented for the Nets and while a scoring outburst from the backcourt can win a game, maybe two, the athleticism of Simmons, the dominance of Embiid, and the urgency from Philadelphia should help them reign supreme in this series. BUT, if the Nets can steal one in Philly and strike some self-doubt in a roster full of impending free agents, things get interesting.

***

Final note… I don’t know how severe this Embiid injury is as he has been in and out of the lineup, but I, on my complete gut with no knowledge of what is actually going on, believe Embiid will play the full series. If he does not that of course opens up a lot of avenues for the Nets to begin their upset bid. The Sixers front court depth, as I alluded to isn’t super strong and without Embiid that becomes a matchup Allen can take advantage of. That would also give the Nets guards an opportunity to take advantage of Sixer bigs in the pick-and-roll as none have the combination of speed and strength that Embiid does sliding with guards. I am not counting on Embiid sitting out so I didn’t factor it into the preview, but that is the type of injury that even out a game can turn a series in the other direction.