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Nets no match for 76ers as they lose Game 1, 121-101

The Brooklyn Nets dropped Game 1 of their first round playoff matchup against the 76ers.

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Brooklyn Nets visited the Philadelphia 76ers in the inaugural game of the 2023 NBA playoffs, a matchup between the Eastern conference's 3-seed and 6-seed. Brooklyn, however, entered as a bigger underdog than the standings might imply. As Kyle Kuzma was quick to point out, the Nets finished the season on an 11-13 stretch, the only time this newly formed squad has spent together. The Sixers, meanwhile, have been rolling since an early rough patch that ended around Thanksgiving.

Those trends continued in Game 1 on Saturday afternoon, with the Brooklyn Nets suffering a 20-point loss despite playing well for large stretches of the game. It turns out the underdog label that many Nets shied away from in the lead-up to this series was rightfully applied, and Brooklyn may be facing more of an uphill battle than they expected.

Final score from Game 1 on the road: Philadelphia 121, Brooklyn 101.

Coming into the series and Saturday’s game, the focus was on Joel Embiid, and how the Nets were going to try to slow him down. Even the most casual fan, divorced from any X’s and O’s talk, was forced to consider Brooklyn’s potential defensive strategies against the presumptive MVP. To double, or not to double; to switch, or not to switch?

“There’s just some things that you’re going to have to be able to give up going into a series, and you make adjustments along the way but can’t stop it all, for sure,” said Jacque Vaughn pre-game.

From jump street, it was clear what the Nets planned to give up: 3-pointers. Double Joel Embiid, collapse the paint on any and all drives, and force Philadelphia to win the game from deep. Unfortunately for Jacque Vaughn and his staff, the Sixers were ready for the challenge, right from the get-go.

The home team shot 62% - 62 percent! - from deep in the first half, jumping out to a 67-58 lead after the first 24 minutes. Admittedly, more than a few looks were uncontested, but to add insult to injury, James Harden nailed a trio of his patented step-back triples to cap the incendiary half. Ultimately, the Sixers would take and make many more 3-pointers than the Nets, finishing 21-43 from deep.

“You know, I think we can just do a better job of making guys - knowing where guys want to shoot and don’t want to shoot from instead of giving them the ones that they feel comfortable with,” said Cam Johnson after the game. “But 21 threes is a lot of threes to make in a ballgame, for sure.”

Vaughn was slightly more pleased with his team’s execution, and disappointed with the results: “Then, you take the ones from Tobias, off-the-bounce threes, he made it with a contest over Spencer. The James [Harden] 29-footer, off the bounce with three seconds on the clock, that’s just part of basketball. You pat him on the back and say good shot. We have to be disciplined enough that the shots that we want to give up because of game-plan wise, those are ok.”

However, the Nets’ head coach did touch on another major issue for his squad when discussing Philly’s hot shooting, saying that “it would be interesting to watch the game again, but when you take away the ones made off the offensive rebounds - those, if we take care of the offensive rebounds, those you can take out of the equation.”

It’d be hard to fault Vaughn for that assessment. Brooklyn was plagued by offensive rebounds all game long; nobody could box out P.J. Tucker, who snagged four o-boards of his own in just the first half. The 76ers wound up taking 11 more shots in that first half than the Nets did.

Vaughn attributed some of Brooklyn’s glass-related struggles to their doubling of Embiid, admitting that “You’re not in your traditional spots once you start flying around.” However, he believes increased effort can be a panacea going forward: “You trap Embiid, now you’re rotating, now you need another effort to stop the penetration, then go out for the rebound. It’s just giving multiple efforts,; we just got to get that in our brain that that’s what it’s going to take in this series. It’s not going to be traditional; we got to mix things up, take some risks, and we did that tonight.”

Johnson, who finished with an efficient 18 points on 11 shots, agreed with his coach: “When you’re doubling and rotating a lot, it becomes a little bit harder to box out. So we just have to have a continued, high attention to guys crashing, putting bodies on them. It gets physical. It’s physical, and sometimes they’re coming in clear and you just got to take a hit, give a hit, whatever it is.”

Given the Sixers’ hot-shooting and aggressive rebounding, how was Brooklyn still in it at half-time?

Two reasons. The first being that, despite roughness around the edges, the Nets played a strong first half. It wasn’t just that they shot 50% from deep themselves, though that helped to keep Philadelphia in their sights. Rather, they executed their game-plan. The doubles on Embiid were largely successful; the dominant big was held to just 10 points in the first-half, and was a bit sluggish reacting to said double-teams. The strategy certainly won the Nets some possessions, and prevented the opponent’s best player from getting into a rhythm:

Philadelphia accepted Brooklyn’s gambit, and damn near made every 3-pointer they took. But, echoing Jacque Vaughn, you have to give up something, especially as a significant underdog. It’s be false to say the Nets’ decision-making or execution failed them to start this one.

The second reason Brooklyn kept it close: Mikal Bridges. Simple enough. The Philadelphia kid delivered big-boy, playoff-level buckets in his homecoming. There were not many catch-and-shoot threes, nor cuts leading to easy looks at the rim. Bridges was attacking pick-and-roll defense with his now-signature pull-up jumper, or sizing defenders up in isolation. This huge dunk towards the end of the half, after dusting James Harden, certainly put a smile on Nets fans’ faces everywhere:

Despite exploding out of the gate, Bridges wasn’t eager to douse praise on himself after pouring in 23 first-half points: “Just trying to be aggressive. You know, try to do whatever it takes to win. Coaching, players just finding me and just trying to be aggressive, trying to, you know, win the game.”

And if that wasn’t clear enough, Bridges capped off his post-game presser with a pretty unambiguously, claiming that “none of that s**t matters when you lose. It feels good to make some shots, but I’d rather miss shots and win, so it’s whatever.”

Overall, the first half was difficult to parse. The Nets were playing with effort and execution, but were still down nine. Is that more disheartening than being one’s own worst enemy? Does it inspire less hope going forward, knowing that your best may not be good enough?

Brooklyn never did clear the hump in the second half. The favorite kept punching the underdog, and the underdog kept swinging back, admirably. But the Nets never strung a combination together. The 76er lead rested comfortably between six and 12 until midway through the fourth quarter, where a 15-2 run briefly pushed the lead to 20.

Predictably, Brooklyn’s offense just couldn’t maintain such a high level for 48 minutes. With just under three minutes left in the third quarter, the Nets sat at 81 points. Flash forward to just under nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the Nets still sat at 81 points. And that, minus some tepid flirtation with what would have been a comeback for the ages, was the game.

Vaughn ascribed the late-game fall-off to the fact that “the game just slowed down in the second half a little bit, and that was the biggest difference. For us, we have to keep this thing fast paced and it starts with stops.”

Seth Curry echoed that message: “We didn’t really get stops, we didn’t really get to get out and run as much because, like I said, they were getting two or three opportunities, getting put-backs, scoring a lot in the 2nd half.”

The defensive struggles that Vaughn and Curry alluded to were certainly real.

Joel Embiid never really had the explosion his raucous home crowd was waiting for. Of course, for Embiid, a fairly uninspiring game led to 26 points, but he only shot 7-15 from the floor while grabbing five rebounds. The 28-year-old star, however, dissected the doubles he faced down the stretch, making quick decisions with improved spacing and cutting around him. Rather than waiting for two defenders to arrive, he brought the funk to them, whether spraying the ball around the court or looking for his own shot:

“They adjusted to what we were doing defensively. They put guys in different positions and they were able to combat our double teams a lot. Put Joel [Embiid] in the middle of the floor obviously and he was able to move the ball around,” said Curry. “Honestly, some of the stuff they did tonight, we were willing to live with. So, we got to adjust for Game 2, and that’s why it’s a series.”

Vaughn, meanwhile, credited Embiid as well, saying what “he did do is re-establish himself, whether it was in a re-post or establishing himself at the top of the key once he gave it up. Those are the ones we need to take away from him and make it tougher for him to catch...There’s nothing we want to allow to be easy, especially for those two guys on the other team.”

Oh yeah, that other guy. The play of James Harden certainly had to feel more painful for Nets fans. He made seven of his 13 long-range attempts, hitting just a single 2-pointer. But it was his passing, as it usually is, that elevated him to best-player-on-the-court status. The Beard finished with 13 assists, many of which came after dicing up various Nets on drives to the paint:

Conversely, Spencer Dinwiddie was not so effective, his worst habits choosing a rough time to reappear. Gone was the decisive floor general that averaged 9.1 assists and just 2.1 turnovers in his second go-round as a Net. He did not control the game; rather, it controlled him. Nearly of all his turnovers came on alley-oop attempts that were reasonable decisions, but poorly executed, an unfortunate Dinwiddie specialty. Brooklyn’s last gasp featured them cut the lead to 12, before a lob to Day’Ron Sharpe became a turnover that then became a Tyrese Maxey 3-pointer. Ballgame.

Vaughn kept things largely positive, though, when discussing his starting PG after the game: “I said to him during one of the timeouts, ‘the odds are in your favor and we’re going to connect on a few of these.’ The good thing is our bigs are getting to the rim, it is available.”

Dinwiddie is far from the sole reason Brooklyn lost this game, of course. The Twins, Bridges and Johnson, combined for 48 points on just 29 shots, and Curry shot 4-5 for ten points. But no other Net chipped in much, and the whole team largely fell apart as the game progressed. Their demise was reflected in a couple of stat-sheet oddities: Dorian Finney-Smith, who made both of his 3-pointers, only saw 18 minutes of action. Curiously, Bridges only put two shots up in the second half.

When asked if the Sixers did anything differently in the second half to limit his attempts, Bridges said “Yeah, they were up, they were blitzing. So I was just trying to make the right reads.”

Brooklyn’s head coach, meanwhile, took responsibility (and dished some out to the referees) for his now-star player’s second-half disappearance: “It’s on me to continue to get the ball to him, and also continue to have pace where they’re not bogging him down and holding him and grabbing him and letting him not play with freedom of movement,” said Vaughn.

There were more straight-forward, obviously troubling stats as well: Six of the nine Nets in the rotation had multiple turnovers; nobody rebounded particularly well. The home-favorite shot 19 more times than the road underdog, never a winning formula.

Brooklyn was outclassed on Saturday, despite playing a strong first half. The double-edged sword? They have a quick turnaround, with Game 2 in Philadelphia on Monday night.

Milestone Watch

  • How’s this for a milestone? The Nets posted the best-ever effective field goal percentage (eFG%) in a playoff loss at 65%, per Stathead. Reminder: eFG% accounts for all field-goal attempts, and weighs 3-point attempts as more valuable but doesn’t consider free-throw attempts in its calculation. Brooklyn shot just 10-15 from the line on Saturday afternoon, but 45% from deep and 63% from inside the arc.
  • Mikal Bridges posted his first 30-point playoff game as a Net in his very first playoff game as a Net. He had one such game in 35 tries as a Phoenix Sun. Bridges now has 12 games of 30+ points since joining Brooklyn.
  • Joe Harris hit his 45th career playoff 3-pointer as a Net, moving him past Joe Johnson (44) into fourth place in franchise history. Next up: Deron Williams, who canned 45.

Some Fireworks

That is, if you can call the double-technicals given to Joel Embiid and Royce O’Neale ‘fireworks’:

Vaughn had some spicy words for the refereeing crew when discussing the minor altercation: “Equal opportunity, I think it was. They wanted to give one to one guy, so they gave it to the other guy. If they would have called the out of bounds first, then we wouldn’t have gotten to that play...Joel was out of bounds on that play anyway, and then we got to the altercation.”

That wasn’t Vaughn’s only targeted remark in his post-game presser, also saying that he hopes the referees will “be calling a travel and [offensive] 3-seconds on the big fella next game, so I’ll look forward to that.” Gamesmanship, of course, extends beyond the game.

What’s Next?

Game 2 at the Wells Fargo Center is scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m. ET. The game will be simulcast both on YES Network, as well as on TNT. The radio broadcast will comes courtesy as WFAN, per usual.

Head to our sister site, Liberty Ballers, for a much more jubilant recap of Brooklyn’s Game 1 loss to Philadelphia.