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Nets lose heartbreaker at Barclays, 102-97, go down 0-3 vs 76ers

The Brooklyn Nets fought desperately to get back in their series against the Philadelphia 76ers, but fell just short.

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers vs Brooklyn Nets Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Words cannot do the Game 3 that the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers justice. It was, at the very least, an inner-circle contender for weirdest game of the season, playoffs or not, the sort of game that simultaneously lasts five minutes but also six hours.

There were two ejections, neither of which resulted from an attempted kick to the jewels that came two minutes into the game. Joel Embiid, a shoe-in for the MVP award, was so hobbled by game’s end that he did not touch the ball on his team’s two most important possessions, but momentarily recovered to fly across the court for a superhuman, game-saving block in the game’s final seconds.

As with any bona fide cluster[redacted] of a game, no matter how fun it was, most of the discourse will focus on the officiating, which both mirrored and set the tone for the game itself. Just like the 3-point shot, NBA teams and players have discovered just how valuable getting to the free-throw line is ... and how to exhaust that resource at all costs. Naturally, officiating has never been more important in determining the outcome of a game, the pace of which has increased to a point where referees are tasked with making multiple split-second, tough decisions on nearly every possession. With that said, holy [redacted] [redacted].

The veteran crew headed by Tony Brothers that worked Game 3 appeared entirely unprepared for what everybody and their mother expected to be the most physical installment in an already-chippy series. Make-up calls, wild swings from quarter-to-quarter, you name it. Neither side, nor the impartial observer, had anything positive to say about the zebras after this one.

However, as different as Game 3 was from Games 1 and 2 in Philly, there was one big similarity. The Brooklyn Nets lost. This loss, however, is certainly the most painful, and not just because it represents the de-facto end to their season, but because they were truly in it until the final buzzer. Their comebacks weren’t fake, this one never felt inevitable, the gap in top-shelf talent wasn’t overwhelming, especially with a hobbled Embiid. Brooklyn just lost, and instead of remembering this ridiculous night with a smile, it’ll be remembered as the bitter end, with the epilogue soon to come. Final score: Philadelphia 102, Brooklyn 97.

Despite a rollicking, bucket-filled first quarter that closed with the Sixers leading 32-28, it was hard not to focus on the, let’s say, non-basketball activities of the frame. The game was hardly two minutes old when Spencer Dinwiddie connected with Nic Claxton on an alley-oop, a very welcome sight for Nets fans everywhere, considering their difficulties hooking up in Games 1 and 2. Better yet, Embiid picked up a foul on the back end of the play, turning the bucket into an and-one opportunity. As he does, he fell to the floor after the whistle, at which point Claxton made a point to step over his outstretched legs. Embiid responded with, well:

Claxton and his future descendants likely thanked their lucky stars that Embiid’s kick wasn’t a little more on-target. The rest of the Nets, meanwhile, may not have. The presumptive MVP avoided ejection, getting tagged with a Flagrant 1, perhaps thanks to his poor aim. Less than 24 hours after the league announced a one-game suspension for Draymond Green, another one of their stars was immediately in the middle of a similar situation, even if it wasn’t identical. Only, Embiid escaped largely unscathed.

After five minutes or so of the Barclays Center crowd erupting at various replays of the incident during the review process, Brooklyn was awarded with two free-throws; Philly shot one as well, thanks to a technical foul stemming from Claxton’s Allen Iverson impression. All in all, the early hullabaloo hardly impacted the subsequent 46 minutes of play.

Jacque Vaughn, predictably, was not happy about the situation: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in my career before. For a guy to intentionally kick someone in an area that none of us want to be kicked at, or towards, and for him to continue to play, I’ve never seen that before in a game. And a guy continues to be able to play. Intentional.”

Claxton was more surprised, rather than upset, at Embiid’s non-ejection: “I mean, it’s the MVP. I thought he should have been kicked out. Like I said, it’s not my job to referee. Maybe I should have sold it more instead of just clapping on the ground, like I was really, really hurt. But just gotta move on.”

He also added that, “As a competitor, you want the best players on the court. So honestly, I was happy he stayed in the game and I was able to match up and have some good reps against him.”

Claxton did indeed have some good reps against the big man he called the MVP, playing his strongest game of the series thus far. He finished with 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting, and a plus/minus of 13, while no other Net finished with a total greater than 1. He also did this to Embiid just two possessions after the kick:

Another notable contributor from the first half? None other than Cam Thomas, who scored six points in 11 first-half minutes, his first non-garbage time run of the series:

Bridges was a fan of what he saw from his young guard, saying that he “came in and got some buckets, just out there just playing hard. I mean, that’s all you want from him...I mean, it’s tough with limited minutes, but I think he did a good job just going out there, playing hard, trying to win.”

However, despite Thomas’ efforts it soon appeared that Game 3 would go the way of the first two games of the series. Brooklyn was outscored 23-12 in his minutes, scoring just 19 total points in the second quarter. They failed to knock down open shots and get out in transition, two factors that Head Coach Jacque Vaughn cited as being crucial to the series.

On the other end, Tyrese Maxey picked up where he left off, scoring 15 of his 25 points in the first half, torching long closeouts from the Nets with 3-pointers and aggressive drives. Philadelphia led 58-47 heading into halftime. Outside of Embiid’s kick, which admittedly was hard to ignore, this game looked and felt very similar to the first two installments of the series.

The second half plunged all of us deep into the rabbit hole. An already-physical game reached another level, and Embiid’s right knee continued to deteriorate until he was fully limping out there. Brooklyn exploded out of the gates with a 14-0 run, ultimately winning the third quarter 35-18. Towards the end of the frame, James Harden elbowed, rather than kicked, another Net in the groin, this one in the course of play. Unfortunately for Harden, he connected on this one. The result, somewhat unbelievably? An ejection:

“I didn’t even think it was a foul on me,” the former Net said. “Somebody draped on me, the natural reaction is to use your off arm to get him off a little bit...that can’t happen.”

An efficient 21-point night for the Beard ended before the fourth quarter began. And what a fourth quarter it was.

The Nets, despite entering the period with a six-point lead, could never pull away. Open 3-pointers danced around the rim but refused to appease an antsy Barclays Center crowd by falling through the cup.

Claxton continued to do his part and involve himself more in a Nets offense that had struggled to create shots in the paint all spring long. Flip shots, reverse layups, and dunks were all on display, all the way up until his final moments on the court, where he flexed at Embiid just a little too long after putting him in the basket:

With that being his second ‘T’ of the game, Claxton’s night was finished.

“Yeah when I watched it it was a little excessive. I got to keep my emotions in check,” said Claxton on his second technical foul. “I know my team, they need me out there. So that’s part of my growth, just keeping my emotions like that when I’m playing well and my emotions are really high. I got to look myself in the mirror and just be smarter in those situations.”

Jacque Vaughn echoed his young center’s message of growth, saying that “I warned him no hanging on the rim, nothing extra to get himself kicked out just because I knew and kinda felt [where] the environment, the game was heading towards. But it’s an opportunity for him to grow up, which is great.”

It didn’t feel like it at the time, but his ejection marked the beginning of the end for Brooklyn. Following his ejection, Philadelphia outscored the home team 21-10.

Bridges poured in 26 points, attempting to will the Nets to victory, but shooting just 9-of-26 on a boatload of tough pull-up jumpers wasn't going to cut it. He scored just four points on 1-5 from the floor over the final 12 minutes. And while Cam Johnson had another strong playoff performance, scoring 17 points on just ten shots, he was held scoreless in the final frame, and missed an open, momentum, corner 3-pointer down the stretch.

Spencer Dinwiddie may have had his best game of the series as well, putting up 20 points and seven assists, but he faltered down the stretch too, scoring just two points to go with two turnovers in the final quarter of play. Dinwiddie nearly tied the score with a layup in the game’s final seconds, but Embiid unfortunately chose a hell of a time to make the play of the day, blocking his shot just before it reached the glass:

The Nets would have one last chance to tie the game, however, just a few seconds later. Suffice to say, it did not go as planned, with their sideline-out-of-bounds play resulting in an immediate turnover:

Bridges took responsibility for that final, soul-crushing turnover post-game: “I should have just popped and got the ball. I was trying to get open and shoot but I should have just popped and got it.”

On a wild night at the Barclays Center, that turnover sealed Brooklyn’s fate. An uneasy, anxiety-inducing, occasionally infuriating back-and-forth contest gave us an anti-climax. That Embiid was held to just 14 points on 13 shots while turning it over five times didn’t matter. That the Nets won the turnover battle 14-8 didn’t matter either. De’Anthony Melton nonchalantly took the ball down the court for a game-sealing dunk, and with it the Brooklyn Nets’ hopes and dreams.

The series is now 3-0 in favor of the heavy favorite in Philadelphia. The game that effectively ended Brooklyn’s season mirrored the season itself: a long, winding, and oft-confusing road that ended in disaster. The outcome only felt inevitable at its conclusion.

Milestone Watch

  • As mentioned, Brooklyn won the third quarter by a score of 35-18. That 17-point advantage is the Nets’ biggest in a third quarter in the franchise’s playoff history. Their 35 points in the frame also marked a series-high for any quarter.
  • Mikal Bridges now has three 20-point playoff games as a Net, going 3/3 in that category to start his Brooklyn career. That total already matches the three 20-point playoff games he had as a Phoenix Sun.

Not quite a milestone, but Ben Simmons who did travel to Philadelphia for Games 1 and 2 was on the Nets bench for Game 3.

Officiating Watch

The difference between Embiid’s poor aim on his kick, and Harden’s seemingly accidental precision was the difference in the levels of flagrant fouls they received. No, really:

Something about that seems fishy, but as Nic Claxton said, “it’s not my job to referee.” Could the league review the play and possibly suspend Embiid? “Probably,” said a league source. So we may not be at the end of the story. Indeed, Charles Barkley on TNT said he believed what Embiid did to Claxton is worse that what Draymond Green did to Donatus Sabonis.

Dame Time

Portland Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard was sitting court-side for this one, though the Nets surely would have loved him to be on the court instead.

Lillard recently named Mikal Bridges as one of his two favorite players to watch in the league, along with Devin Booker, but the love affair extends even further back. In 2021, in an interview with Chris Haynes, Lillard called the then-Sun his “favorite small forward in the league,” and that was before Bridges evolved into the scoring threat he's become in Brooklyn.

Couple that with the perennial rumors about Lillard leaving Portland via trade, and his appearance at the Barclays Center on Thursday night may have meant just a little more to Nets fans than your average celebrity sighting.

What’s Next?

Brooklyn’s potential wake is scheduled for 1:00 pm E.T. on Saturday afternoon at the Barclays Center, the setting for the Nets’ Game 4 matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers.

The game will be simulcast on TNT, for the national audience, and My9, for the local one. WFAN will have the radio call.

Head on over to Liberty Ballers for a different perspective.