It was just two seasons ago that the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers had the two worst records in the Eastern Conference. Now, they're meeting in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 series in the playoffs, having taken two very different paths to get here.
Just a little over 14 months ago, the Sixers were 25-25 and tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They finished last season by winning 27 of their final 32 games and winning a playoff series for the first time in six years.
Though their two biggest stars -- Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid -- are just 22 and 25 years old, respectively, the Sixers accelerated their development. Adding two veterans -- Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris -- via mid-season trades sped things up, but both can leave this summer in free agency. They have the most talented started lineup this side of Oakland, but are just one of four Eastern Conference teams with a legit chance of making it to The Finals. They're all-in, but so are the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors.
The Sixers still must get through the first round, where they face the Nets -- a team they had some issues with in the regular season. The Atlantic Division rivals split their season series and no Eastern Conference team scored more efficiently against Philadelphia than the Nets did.
Brooklyn has emerged from the post-Boston-trade abyss, even though the last time they were able to use their own Draft pick was 2013. Smart roster moves and player development have helped the Nets to go from 20-62 to 42-40 in just two seasons.
With their star power, the Sixers are looking for more. The Nets have already surpassed expectations. But they're a dangerous team that has had some success against Philly.
Three things to watch
1. How much of an issue is Joel Embiid's knee injury? Time will tell if Embiid is able to play in Game 1. But just the uncertainty of Embiid's status (as expressed by GM Elton Brand on Wednesday) is a concern in itself. The Sixers have a terrific starting lineup from 1-5, but Embiid is the real difference-maker. Philly was 8-10 without him this season, allowing 112.5 points per 100 possessions in those 18 games. They allowed 107.9 in the 64 games he played and just 103.3 with him on the floor.
2. Assuming Embiid plays, how do the Nets match up with the Sixers' starting lineup? When they met on March 28, rookie Rodions Kurucs defended Ben Simmons, with Joe Harris on J.J. Redick and D'Angelo Russell on Jimmy Butler. The Nets had a difficult time defending Embiid with their two regular centers (Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis), so midway through the second quarter, they went to 6-foot-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who actually had some success against Embiid.
3. Will we see some zone defense? Yes. According to Synergy tracking, only the Miami Heat played more zone than the Nets, who used a zone on about 10 percent of defensive possessions this season. They only played zone on eight total possessions in their four games against the Sixers and it was not very successful in the March 28 meeting (when Philly scored 12 points on six zone possessions). Over the course of the series, Brooklyn will surely look to mix things up defensively -- especially if and when they're having a hard time defending Embiid. They need to know where Redick is at all times, but the Sixers are relatively light on zone busters.
The number to know
10 -- The Sixers' starting lineup -- Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid -- played together in just 10 of the Sixers' 28 games after the team traded for Harris. The last time it played together was against Brooklyn on March 28. It was a plus-11 in its 11 minutes that night and overall, the lineup outscored its opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions in its 161 minutes, the fourth-best mark among 66 lineups that played at least 150 minutes together (and that's with 98 of the 161 minutes having come against playoff teams). But 161 minutes is not a lot of time and spacing issues will continue to be a concern when Simmons doesn't have the ball in his hands. Also, because the lineup plays less than 20 minutes per game together, the Sixers will still need quality minutes from a bench that lost some of its depth with the trades for Butler and Harris.
The status of Embiid affects everything. In the regular-season series, the Nets outscored the Sixers by 40 points in 58 minutes with Embiid off the floor. If he's healthy, he's the best player in the series and a matchup nightmare for Brooklyn's frontline. Assuming Embiid plays, the Sixers shouldn't have too much trouble getting to the conference semifinals. Brooklyn's guards should continue to cause problems for the Philadelphia defense. (No team scored more on drives vs. the Sixers this season -- 37.3 ppg.) But even beyond Embiid, Philadelphia has some matchup advantages. The Sixers' lack of depth shouldn't be as much of an issue in the postseason. Sixers in 5.
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