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Brooklyn’s guards need to play more ... or it could be over

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Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Let’s call it how it is: The Philadelphia 76ers have taken the Nets down from the high they were riding from Game 1.

Philly has officially regained control of the series at 2-1 following two double-digit victories over the Nets. There was a ton of drama during and after Game 2 in Philly, all a byproduct of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons laughing about the Flagrant 1 elbow Embiid delivered to Jarrett Allen.

The Nets felt disrespected.

Jared Dudley jabbed at Simmons.

Fans posted a “MISSING” poster seeking information on the Philly All-Star’s jump shot

This series has the making of a grand rivalry now and in the future, sort of like the Nets and Raptors back in 2013-14, (except the Nets went into a downward spiral quicker than than anyone realized in that moment.) And relative to then, the Nets are the underdog now, much like Toronto back then.

There are differences, of course. This “happy-to-be-here” attitude is the reality of the moment and ultimately the key thing we’ll reflect on when we move on to the summer. They’ve already exceeded expectations. Free agents have to be impressed. This is ultimately house money they’re playing with.

However, as competitors trying to grow and build the culture, the Nets simply cannot think that way because they’ve worked hard to get here and should continue to play with confidence.

All that said, the 76ers took care of business on Brooklyn’s home floor Thursday, in the Nets first home playoff game since 2015.

They did it without Embiid and behind the lead of Simmons who was called “average” in the half court by Dudley. Poking the beast can have a downside. Simmons took complete advantage of Embiid being out by controlling the paint. Brooklyn simply couldn’t match up with the pieces surrounding Simmons.

The coaching staff may not have the luxury of being able to turn to multiple All-Stars like the 76ers, but there’s a glaring issue when you look at the minute differential between Philly’s playmakers and Brooklyn’s.

Embiid and Marjanovic are the bigs that Brooklyn’s struggled with all season, while Brooklyn’s guards, specifically, gave Philadelphia problems all year long. Then, came the postseason.

John Schuhmann of NBA.com wrote how Brooklyn scored 117.2 points per 100 possessions, the most among all Eastern Conference teams, against the Sixers. Brian Lewis noted the Nets’ guards have penetrated Philly’s defense to death. Brooklyn’s Offensive Rating (115.4), shooting percentage (.499) and True Shooting (59.7 percent) against the Sixers were the fourth-best against any opponent.

And that’s what won them Game 1. The Nets used D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert to lead the charge, the two contributing 26 points and 23 points.

In Game 3, the two were also tearing it up. LeVert scored a career-high 19 points in the third quarter and 26 on the night. Russell also dropped 26 and scored 11 straight to help bring the Nets within 6 with 8:37 left in the quarter. Spencer Dinwiddie helped with his downhill approach with 15 points.

All in limited time.

The Nets need at least two ball handlers on the floor at all times because the 76ers are trying to shade the pick-and-roll to avoid the drive, thus making it easier on the main ball handler because he can swing it to one of two ball handlers who have the ability to penetrate and drive. All good.

Here’s the problem: None of these guys played nearly as much as they should have.

D’Angelo Russell: 30 minutes

Joe Harris: 29 minutes

Caris LeVert: 28 minutes

Spencer Dinwiddie: 26 minutes

Here’s what Philadelphia playmakers minutes looked like:

Ben Simmons: 38 minute

Jimmy Butler: 38 minutes

Tobias Harris: 36 minutes

J.J. Redick: 34 minutes

It’s understood that Brooklyn’s other players didn’t step up nearly as much as Philadelphia’s (and Ed Davis has been limited to 16 minutes the last two games, troubled by a sore right ankle.) That’s really a testament to Philly’s deep arsenal of studs, but it’s also a product of Brooklyn’s porous defense inside the paint. In order for the Nets to have a chance in this series, Russell, LeVert, and Dinwiddie are going to need to see more time and be more effective on defense as well. For the first time in team history, the 76ers have scored more than 130 points twice in a playoff series and the series has at least two more games to go.

LeVert’s averaging 23.7 minutes in the three games, Dinwiddie 27.3 minutes, Russell 27.9, and Harris 28.3.

Again, things are different outside the guard rotation. The Nets are at a disadvantage with Davis out, and on the defensive end, in general. Not to mention finding ways to get all their backcourt mates to play together effectively and consistently, but if they’re going to give Philly a run for their money, Atkinson ought to start playing his best players a lot more than they are now.

The series is only 2-1 and it’s headed back to Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon and Atkinson has promised there will be adjustments. This thing is far from dead, but it will be very soon if they don’t make those adjustments. The Sixers have the more talented backcourt, but the Nets have beaten them three of the seven times they’ve played this season. Time for some changes.