The Sixers (54-28) hosted the Brooklyn Nets (45-37) in Game 1 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to take care of business at home. Brooklyn wanted to steal homecourt advantage with a victory. The Sixers used a balanced attack and a barrage of threes to beat up on the Nets in Game 1, 121-101.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Nets will be without the services of Ben Simmons, who has a nerve impingement in his back, for the entirety of the playoffs.
Jacque Vaughn started Spencer Dinwiddie, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Nic Claxton.
There was one Sixer ready to supply energy after a long layoff in the game’s opening minutes, and that man was 37-year-old Tucker. Philadelphia really struggled to find its footing on offense in the early going, but Tucker kept possessions alive with phenomenal effort on the offensive glass. They weren’t cheapies, either. Tucker shielded off a Net with interior position on one of Philadelphia’s first possessions of the game, securing the board on a long miss and creating a new play for the Sixers. Tucker also hustled to a long miss that popped out to the paint side of the floor, beating Brooklyn to the ball and tipping the rock free to Maxey to reset the possession.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised that Bridges found early success scoring out of the pick-and-roll, the Sixers giving him space to drive or pull up for jumpers in a heavy drop coverage. Having said that, Philadelphia did an excellent job of funneling Bridges away from straight-line drives out of those pick-and-rolls. He had to take more circuitous routes to the rim, allowing Philadelphia to game his cross-court kick-out passes. Maxey was just one Sixer to pick off a Bridges pass to the weak side, playing the role of free safety to get a stop and a transition opportunity for Philadelphia.
Very odd first half for Harden, to say the least. We’ll have more on the bad part below, but his perimeter shooting was nothing short of a gut punch for the Nets. He drilled a handful of stepback triples, leaving various Nets dazed and confused. The bearded guy approached heat-check territory, lining one up for a bucket against a sharp contest at the top of the arc and then missing the mark a bit on a deep one against a double-team at the end of the first half. That shooting put wind under Philadelphia’s sails as Bridges began to cook for Brooklyn.
Harris deserves a monsoon of credit for the way he came out on offense in the first half. Not a recipient of many shots towards the end of the regular season, Harris was ultra quick with his decision-making in the first 24 minutes. Aside from a couple of post-ups against mismatches, Harris put the ball in motion quickly. Whether it was attacking a close-out when the Nets were in rotation, zipping a pass to the next man, or loading up a catch-and-shoot three, Harris made good work of his touches.
The conversation about Harris’ contract is beating a dead horse. We all know he’s not the level of player to warrant a max contract. But, it is immensely valuable that he’s fallen almost all the way out of the picture towards the end of the last two regular seasons only to suddenly become the best version of the player Philadelphia needs him to be when the playoffs begin. It would be dishonest to say Harris wasn’t one of the team’s two best players in the first half of this game.
Just as you’d expect a mature, serious contender to do, the Sixers tightened up in the second half. There were two things that stapled what became a beatdown. First, the Sixers punished Brooklyn’s mistakes. The Nets had a terrible time making passes towards the basket, blowing up lobs with total inaccuracy on the connection. Philadelphia capitalized, getting to the loose ball to end the possession and simultaneously upping the pace to get out and run. The Sixers didn’t exhibit the same degree of success from beyond the arc that they had in the first half. But, Philadelphia worked transition quite well, making the right passes to yield open looks. Make or miss, you can’t ask for much more than open looks against a reeling defense. You’ll always take process over results in a small sample size.
If the Nets are going to have any chance of making this series interesting, they need to win the minutes that Embiid is off the floor. Likewise, the Sixers will be more than fine if Paul Reed can stem the tides while Embiid rests. He scored 11 points on six shots and reeled in four rebounds in about 13 minutes of action. More importantly, Philadelphia was plus-five in Reed’s minutes. That was death for the Nets, end of story.
Reed continues to blossom on both ends of the court. But, the offensive end is where he’s an entirely different player than he was just a few months ago. Catching on the roll is now second nature for Reed, and he can finish off of those movements even if he has to be a little creative on his own. Reed is slowly but surely getting comfortable outside the paint too, converting baby hooks or attacking off one dribble. He’s slowly pushing the boundaries every game, challenging himself to be a bit more creative than he’s used to being. There is no better example of Reed pushing the limits on his role than this play that brought the house down early in the fourth quarter:
BBALL PAUL. OUT THE MUD. OUT THE SOIL. pic.twitter.com/KGdeTwiNma— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 15, 2023
A short time later, Reed followed it up with a reverse jam, plus the foul, stepping in from the dunker’s spot as Harden cracked the interior and left the dump-off pass for his big man.
The Nets put forth a historically efficient shooting game, and still lost this one by 20 points. The Sixers should feel very good about themselves heading into Game 2 on Monday.
Harden ultimately manufactured his usual levels of offense, but his driving game was awful in the first half. Brooklyn did a great job of helping from the back side on his drives. The Nets swatted away a couple of his layups, collapsing behind Harden and catching him off guard with chase-down blocks. Even if you expect better awareness from him, missing those shots wasn’t the most concerning part of the trend.
He botched a couple of relatively easy finishes at the rim, too. Whether he beat a switch and blew by or got downhill in the pick-and-roll, Harden simply bungled basic layups. His touch around the rim has underperformed what it was in his prime, even if Harden has dazzled with some difficult finishes from time to time this season. But, his only two-point score in the first half was a midrange jumper. And it wasn’t for a lack of twos attempted, either.
You should take comfort in the fact that Harden had his burst, dusting a number of Nets licensed to guard him throughout the game. I think the bigger concern should be that burst and ability to rip open an advantage with the first step, especially with Harden nursing a months-long sore achilles.
That didn’t appear to be a problem in this game, which is encouraging. So, I guess it’s fair to attribute the weirdness of his game to some rust after a relatively long layoff. That being said, if Harden continues to struggle at the rim, or if struggling results in him being less aggressive as a driver, then Philadelphia has a problem.
I thought the Sixers did themselves no favors on defense towards the end of the first half. Bridges was already on fire, and they decided to switch on screens. With Harden on the floor, that obviously turned into Brooklyn targeting him in the switch and Bridges going to work. He had 23 points at halftime, and those last few minutes let Bridges inflate that number quite a bit to give the Nets some life heading into the break.
The Sixers (1-0) will host the Nets (0-1) in Game 2 on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.