It’s tough to hate the state of the Brooklyn Nets. You might not love where the franchise is at, but it’s tough to hate this position after nearly four years of melodrama. Forget about the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving era, ignore the ongoing Ben Simmons saga for a moment, and appreciate the fact that the Nets are gearing up for a playoff series with the Philadelphia 76ers.
So, that begs the question: Can the Nets beat the Sixers?
No. Plain and simple.
Joel Embiid nukes any chance of a Brooklyn upset in the first round. Embiid is playing the best basketball of his career and should claim his second scoring title and first MVP (unless Kendrick Perkins and the 47 MVP voters at The Ringer all decide to vote for Nikola Jokic).
The Nets won’t be able to stop him in a seven-game playoff series. Perhaps Nic Claxton will slow him down a bit, but they won’t be able to shut the MVP down completely. Claxton could make an All-Defense team this season, but the slight center is not physically built for a matchup against Embiid. Few big men in the modern NBA are.
There is no correlation between the regular season and the playoffs, so there is little sense in parsing out what happened between the Nets and Sixers in recent meetings. Instead, look back to the 2019 playoffs when the upstart Nets fell to the Sixers in five games. Embiid bullied Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis en route to 54 rebounds and 35 free throws in four games. Expect more of the same against the center tandem of Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe.
Embiid is going to put up his numbers. It’s inevitable. With that in mind, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn could zig when the world expects him to zag. Brooklyn is loaded with athletic wings and ballhandlers. Play small and look to run Philly out of the gym with the three-ball. Between Mikal Bridges’ rise as a true No. 1 option and Brooklyn’s cadre of 3-and-D wings, stealing a game is possible with this strategy.
Instead of going big and smothering Embiid with double teams, Brooklyn’s small-ball approach would focus on James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and the rest of the supporting cast. In a sense, the Nets would be taking all of their eggs out of the “stop Embiid at all costs” basket. Letting arguably the best player in the world run wild might seem counterproductive. But Brooklyn is going to have to be creative to have any chance to make this a competitive series.
Although the Nets are good enough to swipe a game (or two if you squint very hard), that’s the ceiling against a healthy Embiid. And there is nothing wrong with that, as I detailed in a column last month:
“Winning in the play-in tournament or escaping it entirely is the ceiling for Bridges and his new team. The Bucks, Sixers, Celtics, Cavaliers, or Knicks — Brooklyn’s potential first-round opponents — would all be heavy favorites in a potential series. Could the Nets steal a game or two in the first round? Sure. Are they beating any of those teams? My Magic 8 Ball says “very doubtful.”
But if nothing else, a first-round series would be an opportunity for the Nets to showcase Bridges as a No. 1 option in a playoff environment. When Brooklyn brass made the decision to trade away Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they punted on fielding a championship contender for the prospect of a more stable future. Bridges is making that gamble look like a prescient decision early on in his Nets career.”
I stand by that assessment nearly one month later. There are still major question marks surrounding Brooklyn’s future. But for now, it’s time to see what Bridges can do as the lead dog in a playoff series. Even if he’s not enough to tip the scales against Embiid, Nets fans should feel good about where the franchise is at.
Follow Danny Small on Twitter @dwsmall8.