Pre-game expectations for Game 4 of the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers were scarce, if they existed at all. Brooklyn’s entire game-plan had revolved around limiting the impact of star Sixer Joel Embiid over the first three games: relentless double-teaming of the league’s presumptive MVP on one end, working around around his dominant rim protection on the other. Every other factor in the series, to that point, had been a subsequent domino of whatever the Nets threw at Embiid.
Prior to Game 4, Embiid was ruled out with a right knee sprain suffered in Game 3, a Philadelphia win that felt like the death knell for Brooklyn’s season. But Embiid wasn’t going to be available to close out a potential sweep for the favored Sixers. Was that a faint sign of hope for the Nets to at least get a game off Philly, if not crawl back into the series? Especially after 76er Head Coach Doc Rivers hinted that this Game 4 wouldn't just be precautionary rest for his star center, saying Embiid’s MRI “did not turn out well” prior to Saturday’s game.
No, it wasn’t. Despite Embiid’s absence, the Nets faced with the same problems they dealt with for the first 75% of this series; a lack of shot-creating, shot-making, and defensive rebounding. It was another root canal of a game for Brooklyn, particularly on the offensive side, a painful and awkward way to end a painful and awkward season. Perhaps mercifully. Final score: Philadelphia 96, Brooklyn 88.
At first, it appeared as if the Brooklyn Nets may ride the sudden worry around Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers to a decisive Game 4 win. Halfway through the first quarter, the home team took a 19-8 lead over the visiting Sixers, their largest lead in the series to date. Cam Johnson and Spencer Dinwiddie had combined to hit three of Brooklyn’s first six 3-pointers early, and it appeared Philadelphia was wholly unprepared to score the ball without Joel Embiid.
Brooklyn’s staunch defense in the first half was led by none other than Nic Claxton, who finished the first 24 minutes with four blocks, including a brutal rejection of former teammate James Harden...
Harden, seemingly worried about getting destroyed by Claxton at the rim, gets destroyed by Claxton at the rim. And Clax with a little stare, too: pic.twitter.com/9vBECsZ4Il— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) April 22, 2023
He also finished the first half with 15 points and six rebounds, unquestionably the best player on the court to start Saturday’s action. Not only did he dominate his matchup with backup Philly center Paul Reed, but he made the Sixers going small an impossibility, using his size, athleticism, and touch to make six of his first seven field goals. Claxton was, in an-honest-to-God playoff game, the best player on the floor, just one year after being nearly unplayable in the same situation.
“I think I learned a lot this series, and I got a lot better,” said the rangy center. “I’m looking forward to getting even better this summer and taking my game to the next level.”
Claxton’s head coach, Jacque Vaughn, was full of praise and reflection: “To see his growth this year really makes me realize why I want to do this. To be around a guy that is totally different than when I met him. His seriousness, his ability to talk, to direct guys, to know how to grow with guys, where to be in the right place.”
But, despite holding the Philadelphia 76ers to just 34% shooting from the floor in the first half, the Nets never threatened to pull away. Embiid or no Embiid, it was the same story for a Brooklyn offense that’s been cold as ice since the first half of Game 1.
They scored 19 points in the first six minutes, but it took them 14 more minutes to double their total. They started 3-of-6 from deep, but finished the half 2-of-13. Vaughn tried to switch it up, giving Patty Mills his first run of the playoffs, but Mills missed both of his 3-point attempts. Joe Harris, who finished the contest 0-4 from deep with four points, missed some open shots that were potential momentum-builders.
Royce O’Neale was straightforward in his post-game assessment of his team’s shooting: “We got great looks, open shots. I mean, nine times out of ten, I’ll still take every look that everybody got...We happened to miss. It’s basketball.”
Ultimately, the Nets and Sixers piled up brick after brick in a brutal first half. The teams combined to shoot just 38% from the floor, including a ghastly 23% from three. Tobias Harris, who scored a game-high 25 points, was Philadelphia’s saving grace, offensively.
Tobias Harris gets inside for the layup to get the scoring started for us pic.twitter.com/aA6gboInr7— Sixers Nation (@SixersNationCP) April 22, 2023
The half was not a total failure for the Nets, who took a 48-40 lead into the locker room, but it sure felt like a missed opportunity to create some comfortable breathing room, especially in a game where a ten-point led felt like twenty.
Predictably, that missed opportunity came back to bite Brooklyn in the behind. Early in the third quarter, the 76ers ripped off a 14-0 run, giving them a 56-53 lead. As if the Nets were seeing the ghosts of Embiid, dribble penetration completely ceased for the home team; the rest of the second half played out like a nightmare coming true.
The home crowd was completely devoid of energy over final 24 minutes, the loudest fans donned Sixer jerseys. Rather than desperation, both the home team and its fans seemed resigned to their fate, bleeding out slowly and painfully. Nic Claxton was no longer the beneficiary of aggressive driving and dishing from his teammates, and in a complete 180 from the first half, felt nearly invisible. After a dominant first half, he finished with 19 points, 12 boards, and four blocks.
Brooklyn continued to get beat for critical offensive rebounds - by guards, wings, forwards, Paul Reed (eight o-boards), you name it. It turns out that their series-long issues on the glass weren’t a byproduct of consistently doubling Joel Embiid, but something more sinister. An effort issue? A roster issue? Both?
“We got to get bigger over the summer. We got to get nasty over the summer,” said Vaughn. “We got to get guys who really love hitting and take it personal when the other team gets a rebound.” Same old story, indeed.
Offensively, Brooklyn continued to chuck up 3-pointers to no avail second half. Two garbage-time makes pushed their rate from 20% to 24%. Even on fast-break situations that smelled like potential layups, the Nets settled for long-range bombs they were too tight to make:
Bridges stated that the Nets “had good looks but some of it, I think, was just shot selection, not getting easy one sometimes.” He also added that “Everybody works on their game, works on their shots...nobody’s out there trying to miss. Everybody’s trying to make them. It’s just, it’s unfortunate sometimes.”
Following the Sixers punching the Nets in the mouth to open the third quarter, the home team hung around, even taking a brief, 72-70 in the fourth quarter, but never truly punched back. The home team, playing in a neutral fan environment at best, scored just 51 points over the final three quarters of their season, and watched hopelessly as Tobias Harris nailed fadeaway after fadeaway.
It didn’t matter that Harden and Tyrese Maxey shot a combined 10-of-38 from the floor. De’Anthony Melton exploded for 15 fourth-quarter points. It didn’t matter that Dinwiddie played his best game of the series, scoring 20 points on 13 shots. The Brooklyn Nets were out-rebounded 54-38 on Saturday afternoon, and couldn’t hit the ocean from a boat, the same exact story as Games 2 and 3. This one may have felt a little different without Joel Embiid, but it sure didn’t play out that way.
For the third game in a row, Mikal Bridges shot poorly from the field, his mid-range pull-up game bothered by the length and physicality of Philly’s stable of wings including Harris and P.J. Tucker. Bridges scored 17 points on 6-18 shooting, dishing out three assists. Perhaps fatigue was an issue; Bridges led the NBA in minutes, games, and miles traveled this season. After a productive Game 1, he shot a combined 21-59 over the series’ final three games.
Bridges, predictably, waved away any notions of fatigue-related struggle: “Man, I’ll play 48 if I got to. That has nothing to do with [it], how long I’ve been playing, and how many minutes, and all that stuff. No, that’s not it. Just got to be more locked in and be able to make those shots, even if I am tired.”
His complementary wings, Dorian Finney-Smith and Cameron Johnson, didn’t provide much scoring help either, combing for just 19 points on 20 shots, including 3-11 from deep, and three turnovers to two assists.
Another year, another first-round sweep for the Brooklyn Nets. This one may have been more expected, but for some reason, it doesn’t sting any less. Maybe it’s the collective weight of not winning a single, measly playoff game in two years. Maybe because it marks the official end to the epilogue of an era that, albeit mostly frustrating, represented real hope for the franchise’s first NBA title.
Yes, the stars that inspired that hope are now long-gone, especially in NBA years, but Nets fans still haven’t had a moment to reflect on what’s been lost, and the franchise’s new direction. Well, now they do.
- This marks the ninth time in franchise history (not counting the ABA) that the Nets have been swept, vs. completing just three sweeps of their own.
- Even though it came in a loss, Nic Claxton's performance should not be glossed over. His 19 points, 12 boards, and four blocks were all postseason career-highs. His 15/6/4 line in the first half also represented the first time a Net ever reached those totals in one half of a playoff game.
The Brooklyn Nets will hold their final media availability session of the season on Sunday morning, but some players and coaches still reflecting on the long season behind them, and the long journey ahead.
- Jacque Vaughn, on his final message to a team that looks very different from the start of the year: “I told them they should feel extremely proud when they walk around the borough of Brooklyn...We didn’t make excuses this year. We figured out how to stay together. That locker room was together even at the end of the game.”
- Cam Johnson, on what he learned about himself this series: “I know I came in the league a little older than a lot of other people, but I think I still have a long long way to go in terms of what I can be. But in this series, it was just about trying to find those open looks and...just getting to those spots man. It’s just getting to those spots and finding the spots that I can score in.”
- Mikal Bridges on what he learned about himself over the entirety of the season: “I think I just learned, just for everybody out there, change happens. You know, change ain’t fun, change is tough, just in life in general. And just, what are you going to do about it?... We gave it all we got. We got better, we won games, we got to the six-seed and stayed away from the play-in and made it to the playoffs without just dropping all the way out. I just think the basic thing I learned, when times get tough, like, what are you going to do?”
- Nic Claxton, on his feelings toward the team as a whole: “I mean, getting swept is trash. It’s not a good feeling. I wish we could’ve got a win but you always wanna look at the positives. For this team, the organization, to be put in this situation, I thought we did well finishing out the season. Like I said, we just gotta regroup, figure out what pieces we’ll have here next year and keep it going.”
- Spencer Dinwiddie, being Spencer Dinwiddie: “My grandmother said that ‘close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.’ So I don’t know if anybody’s in here for moral victories, but we go into the offseason now, we’re gonna have meetings tomorrow and see what else unfolds. We’re a team that’s in a lot of transition and we’ll see what happens next.”
As Sponge Bob might say...
For a different perspective on the game and series, head over to Liberty Ballers. You’re likely to be offered some champagne. Decline.
- Box Score: Philadelphia 76ers 96, Brooklyn Nets 88 - NBA
- Game Highlights: Philadelphia 76ers 96, Brooklyn Nets 88 (Video) - NBA
- Highlights: Nic Claxton vs. Sixers / 19 PTS, 12 REB (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Highlights: Spencer Dinwiddie vs. Sixers / 20 PTS (Video) - Brooklyn Nets
- Nets fall to 76ers to end season (Video) - Chris Shearn & Frank Isola - YES Network
- Frank and Chris on Brooklyn Nets future (Video) - Chris Shearn & Frank Isola - YES Network
- Jacque Vaughn on Nets’ playoff exit (Video) - YES Network
- Spencer Dinwiddie and Nic Claxton on Nets’ playoff exit (Video) - YES Network
- 76ers finish sweep of Nets without Embiid in 96-88 win - Brian Mahoney - AP
- Tobias Harris fuels 76ers to sweep of Nets - Reuters
- Nets can’t capitalize on Joel Embiid absence as 76ers complete sweep - Ryan Dunleavy - New York Post
- Mikal Bridges takes blame for Nets’ sweep: ‘letting my team down’ - Brian Lewis & Ryan Dunleavy - New York Post
- Nets need rebounders and shot creators to snap first-round exit cycle - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- 76ers’ Joel Embiid getting valuable healing time with sweep of Nets - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Even without Joel Embiid, 76ers finish off Nets - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Mikal Bridges vows to be better for Nets next season - Evan Barnes - Newsday
- Hodge-podge Nets did as well as could be expected - Barbara Barker - Newsday
- 76ers don’t need Joel Embiid to complete first-round sweep of Nets, win Game 4, 96-88 - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News
- Nets’ Mikal Bridges: ‘I let my team down’ after poor shooting series - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News
- Nets swept by Sixers, ending another wild season and starting an uncertain summer - Alex Schiffer - The Athletic
- 76ers sweep Nets, Embiid ‘50 percent’ likely for start of conference semifinals - Rich Hofmann & Alex Schiffer - The Athletic
- With Joel Embiid out, Paul Reed stepped up when Sixers needed him most: ‘I know what I can do’ - Keith Pompey - Philadelphia Inquirer