The Philadelphia 76ers meet the third seed in the Eastern Conference and the sixth seed Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs. The Sixers won the team’s last playoff meeting in the opening round of 2019.
More first round previews of the NBA Playoffs at Yahoo Sports:
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Atlanta Hawks
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) New York Knicks
(2) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers
(3) Sacramento Kings vs. (6) Golden State Warriors
(4) Phoenix Suns vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
How did they get here
Philadelphia 76ers (54-28)
Despite bolstering the winger’s position over the summer, adding veterans De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, and Danuel House (by some fiddling), the Sixers picked up where they left off at the end of last season, when the two-time MVP runner-up returned after Joel’s injury. Embiid Gas, 33-year-old James Harden was cooked one-time, and they both exited the playoffs before the Conference Finals for the fourth straight season.
Philadelphia lost four of their first five games and Harden suffered a month-long right foot injury at the beginning of November. Third-year guard Therese Maxey, who took over the Sixers’ playmaking role in Harden’s absence, and two-time MVP returning runner-up Joel Embiid, struggled with left foot injuries in the weeks that followed. As the calendar turned to December, Philadelphia was a . 500 team in seventh place, losing in double overtime to the lottery-bound Houston Rockets despite healthy returns by Harden and Embiid.
Then, the Sixers took LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers to overtime on December 9, winning their first eight in a row, and never looking back. Since that win over the Lakers, Philadelphia has the highest offensive rating in the East (119.4 points per 100 possessions) and the best record in the league (42-16).
It all starts with the 7-foot-tall, 280-pound Embiid, The best player in the competition And absolute power on both ends of the earth. His 33.1 points per game (in 55/33/86 shooting splits) are the most by a center in nearly 50 years, and he’s added 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.7 blocks and combined steals per game.
Harden returned to form an NBA-caliber offensive maestro, averaging 21 points (44/39/87 split) and 10.7 assists per game. He and Embiid combined for 18 free throws on the night, and their pick-and-roll partnership is as deadly as any in the game. Maxey’s emergence (20.3 points per game in a 48/43/85 split) gave Philadelphia a secondary playmaking option beyond the usual contributions from Tobias Harris, whose $37.6 million salary often masks his abilities on the offensive depth chart.
The additions of Tucker and Melton and the trade-deadline acquisition of Jalen McDaniels gave Sixers coach Doc Rivers enough defensive options to fix the problem with Harden and Maxey appearing in the backcourt. Philadelphia finished with a top 10 defense, and their best formations performed closer to league-leading levels with Embiid as anchor. Once again, the Sixers look great entering the playoffs, and once again, the success of their entire season will be determined by whether they can meet playoff expectations.
Brooklyn Nets (45-37)
Oh boy. The Nets started the season with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, and many more questions about his first-round sweep of the 2022 playoffs. They answered none, save for 18 wins in 20 outings that briefly elevated them among the Eastern Conference elite. Irving is booked with an eight-game suspension for anti-Semitic material and a request to trade on February 3.
The Nets heeded Irving’s request, trading him to the Dallas Mavericks, then did the same when Durant requested a trade to the Phoenix Suns next. The combined running back for Brooklyn was Michal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dorian Feeney Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie and the rights to six first-round draft picks.
The large incoming number of two-way wingers may have been an ideal vehicle for Simmons’ abilities, barring the mental and physical hurdles prevented the three-time All Star from ever being successful. By the end of March, Jack Vaughn, who took over the Nets’ coaching duties once Steve Nash was fired seven games into the season, officially ruled Simmons out for the rest of the season with knee and back injuries.
Durant and Irving left the net at No. 5 in early February, and Bridges’ emergence as a legitimate first choice helped retain a guaranteed playoff seed. Bridges averaged 26.1 points (48/38/89 splits), 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 27 games. Brooklyn has plenty of wingers and shooters to surround Bridges in a list once again ready for the superstar to lift her into the competition.
As it was, Brooklyn finished 11-13 as they currently stand after the All-Star break, with a net-negative rating (-1.2 points per 100 possessions). The defense can still keep the net in games, but the difficulty of generating a half-court offense behind Bridges as a leading playmaker for the first time is a tall order come playoff time.
face to face
The Sixers swept the regular season series with the Nets, 4-0.
In their first meeting on November 22, Durant, Irving, and Simmons all started in Brooklyn, while Philadelphia was without Embiid, Harden, and Maxie, and the Sixers held on to win, 115-106. The healthy Sixers gave Irving and company another loss two months later. Nobody played in Sunday’s regular season finale, when G League starters Mac McClung and Louis King combined for 40 points in Philadelphia’s win over Brooklyn.
The only encounter that could count as a preview to this series was their meeting on February 11, and even that came shortly before the All-Star break in the first game Bridges and Johnson dressed the Nets. Embiid and Harden combined for 66 points in a 101-98 victory, but the Brooklyn defense smothered everyone else on the Sixers enough to give the Bridges the game-winning try in the dying seconds.
Philadelphia Seventy Sixers
Embiid, Harden and Harris will be on the floor at a difficult time, and Tucker’s 91 games of playoff experience over the past six seasons will likely have earned him a spot alongside them. Melton joins that quartet in the Sixers’ most-used (and theoretically best defensively) lineup this season—a 1,029-possession sample that yielded an excess of 6.8 points per 100 possessions. That net rating has nearly doubled at 715 possessions with Maxie in fifth, so expect Rivers to favor the 22-year-old so that defense becomes the priority.
The Nets had a large, versatile lineup of small balls from Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, Bridges, Johnson and Royce O’Neale at times in the fourth quarter, but they needed size with Embiid on the floor for close games. That meant taking O’Neal out of the 6-foot-11 starting position in a lineup that outscored opponents by 20 points over 328 minutes. That includes finishing +11 in 23 minutes against the Sixers.
Match to watch
If Embiid is in control, as he has for the past five months, the Nets really have no chance. That’s not a guarantee, given Embiid’s history of injuries and conditioning problems in the playoffs, but it’s a huge job for Claxton. The only other certified big body on the Brooklyn roster is the growing Dyron Sharp.
Claxton had his best performance of the season (25-point double-double on 11-of-12 shooting) against Embiid on January 25. Claxton Embiid held 26 points on only 6-for-18 shooting in the same game. By offering a little hope, he can reproduce some semblance of that effort in the series. Any minutes of Embiid’s isolation is time Brooklyn perimeter defenders can spend sniffing out the rest of the Sixers.
The NBA’s tracking data provides another sliver of optimism: When the two centers have been directly matched against each other this season, Claxton scored 21 points (10-12 FG) to Embiid’s 26 (10-21 FG) on superior efficiency. This challenges the eye test and the fact that Embiid gave Brooklyn 37 points on 18 shots in their last meeting. It would be a massive upset if the Nets seriously threatened the Sixers in this series, but forcing Embiid to face his Devils in a playoff game early could be enough to scare them.
Brooklyn Nets (+600)
Philadelphia 76ers (-900)
Series schedule (all times ET)
Game 1: Brooklyn at Philadelphia on Saturday (1 p.m., ESPN)
Game 2: Brooklyn in Philadelphia on Monday (7:30 p.m., TNT)
Third game: Philadelphia in Brooklyn Thursday, April 20 (7:30 p.m., TNT)
Fourth game: Philadelphia in Brooklyn on Saturday, April 22 (1 p.m., TNT)
* Game 5: Brooklyn in Philadelphia on Monday, April 24 (TBC)
* Game 6: Philadelphia in Brooklyn on Thursday, April 27 (TBC)
* Game 7: Brooklyn in Philadelphia on Saturday, April 29 (TBC)
Six by six.
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