As we draw closer to the NBA playoffs, everything is starting to come into focus. The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers are ready to go, and their first round series promises to be incredibly fun. With game one right around the corner, I wanted to reach out to some experts on the Sixers. And luckily, I got to chat with one of the best out. Paul Hudrick of Liberty Ballers took some time to answer some questions about the 76ers and this matchup. Here’s our conversation:
1. It’s been another amazing year for Joel Embiid and it looks like he’s set to win this year’s MVP. What about his game this season has stood out the most to you?
Embiid has steadily improved in navigating double teams, but this year he was masterful in that regard. He’s at a point where he invites and even manipulates double teams to find shots for himself and others. He’s seen so many exotic looks over the years from teams like the Raptors and Celtics that it’s hard to fool him. It’s like he has the answers to the test now. His work at the elbows has been especially impressive as he’s turned himself into one of the best midrange shooters in the game. A 15-footer is a layup most nights.
I’d add that he does seem more consistently focused this season. During the second half he upped his defensive focus and was flat out dominant on that end. He is the Sixers’ anchor on both ends.
2. From the outside looking in, it appears as if James Harden has gotten fully comfortable in his role with the 76ers and is back to playing at the All Star level we’re used to seeing from him. How do you see him attacking the switch heavy Nets defense?
Frankly, I’m curious about this one. Not because Harden hasn’t had a great year (he has), but because his health is concerning. In an overtime loss to the Bulls back in March, he had his worst game as a Sixer and wound up missing a week with left Achilles soreness. As we saw against the Heat last postseason (and as Nets fans are painfully aware) when Harden is physically compromised it can look ugly.
Having the last week or so off will likely help, but I expect Brooklyn’s switch-heavy scheme to present Harden problems at times. That said, there were periods this season where Harden looked as healthy as he’s been in some time and he was able to take advantage of bigs on switches.
3. For a large part of the season, Tyrese Maxey was coming off the bench for the 76ers. What did you make of his transition back into the starting five and what have you thought about his role and play throughout the season?
I thought Doc Rivers waited entirely too long to reinsert Maxey into the starting lineup. It made sense for a while because the team was playing so well with De’Anthony Melton starting, but once both Maxey and Melton were struggling it seemed obvious a change was needed.
Maxey still looks every bit like a rising star. His blazing speed and elite three-point shooting are an outstanding complement to Embiid and Harden. Maxey’s only issue is that he can be deferential to the team’s two stars instead of looking for his own shot. In his defense, you’d have to imagine that’s a difficult thing for a 22-year-old to navigate. But when Maxey is aggressive, the Sixers become incredibly difficult to stop.
Another thing to watch for: Maxey really improved defensively as the season went on.
4. I’ve always felt Tobias Harris is at his best when he’s the third or fourth option on a team as compared to earlier in his career when he had more responsibilities on his shoulders. How do you see his role in this series against the Nets?
This is sort of a hot topic here in Philly. After P.J. Tucker nailed a trio of corner threes late to help the Sixers beat the Celtics, it was interesting to hear that it was Harden’s suggestion to move Tucker to the corner and Harris to the dunker spot. We’ll see what that looks like starting Saturday afternoon.
Nobody’s role has shifted more on the Sixers than Harris since he arrived. Last season he did extremely well adjusting to Harden’s style and firing off quick-trigger threes. Harris is definitely a player that can get in his own head, so it’s important for him to be decisive like he was in last year’s playoffs. If things are going well for the Sixers, Harris will play similarly this postseason.
And another note: Harris has also improved tremendously as a defender over the last year or so.
5. I know there have been tons of criticisms over the years regarding Doc Rivers, his coaching style, rotations, etc. If the 76ers don’t go on a deep run, do you see a situation in which 76ers management decides to change direction and search for a new head coach?
Right or wrong, I don’t get the sense that management is eager to move on from Doc. Context will likely matter. If they get past the Nets and then get crushed by Boston, that could change the calculus. Rivers has been far from perfect, but the Sixers have also had rotten luck the last couple seasons between freak injuries and Ben Simmons... well...
6. Who would you consider to be an X-factor for the 76ers in this series?
The bench trio of Melton, Jalen McDaniels and Paul Reed. For as great as the Sixers’ starting unit is, they’re plodding and not super dynamic (outside of Maxey). Those three give the Sixers a ton of energy and athleticism that will likely be needed against a Nets team that I’m sure would like to push the pace.
7. Is there anything that I might’ve missed that you’d like to highlight?
I’ll just say nobody in Philly is looking forward to seeing the Mikal Bridges draft night montages. It’s still a sore spot here. It looks like you all got a good one.
8. Series prediction
I can see the challenges the Nets pose, but Embiid is too good and the Sixers are too talented. From December on they actually had the best record in the NBA. I like Philly in five.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS? [via Tom Lorenzo]
Series: Nets +600
Futures: Nets +60000 to win the title
Game 1: Nets +8.5; ML +290 [o/u 214.5]
According to DraftKings (and others) the Nets don’t really have much of a chance in this series. Of course I tend to agree. Not sure the Nets have enough to win the series. It’s just too much of an uphill battle for them, especially as they try to control and maintain Joel Embiid in the middle.
However, I might be a bit more inclined to take the points in Game 1 - there’s two ways these games typically play out after a long time off: rust or fervor.
Will the Nets come out rusty, having had all this time to sit and reflect? With the 76ers need to shake off the rust? Or will they come out with that underdog mentality and put up their best performance of the series in Game 1?
I tend to think that this young team, with it’s rested legs and ability to stay in games thanks to their 3-point shooting will come out and really challenge the 76ers in Game 1. It’s a day game - James Harden might have a late night in him this evening?
I’m inclined to think this could be a close one and will gladly take the 8.5 points. Which also makes me think the over is well within reach - look, if the Nets keep this game close that means both teams are scoring a ton of points. I’ll take the OVER as well.
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