The Brooklyn Nets lost in Philadelphia on Wednesday night 123-117, giving the 76ers a one game lead for the No. 1 seed in the East and the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The game was billed to be the game of the season with the stakes so high, yet due to some schedule changes and injuries, the Nets entered the Wells Fargo Center short handed with Kevin Durant out for injury management and James Harden nursing a strained hamstring.
Brooklyn closed as nine-point underdogs in the contest with Kyrie Irving serving as the only head that is the Nets three-headed monster available. Even in the loss, the Nets should have left Philly feeling even more bullish about their chances to get out of the Eastern Conference.
The Nets are -106 to win the East as of Thursday afternoon, with the Bucks as +250 and 76ers +450. At the small price, I would play the Nets to get out of the conference.
Sure, the Sixers won the game, but for those that watched, there was a clear divide between the two teams when thinking about a playoff series.
Joel Embiid scored 39 points on 13-of-29 shooting, well below his season long efficiency. Head coach Steve Nash used DeAndre Jordan to match Embiid’s physicality after Jordan was relegated to the bench over the past several weeks.
The Nets will live with Embiid getting his big numbers, especially if it comes on that many shot attempts.
On the other end, Kyrie Irving had his way with several different Sixers defenders, namely Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle is thought of as a future All-Defensive team player, but looked out of sorts trying to stay on Irving. Ben Simmons played his normal elite defense against ‘Uncle Drew’ but that in lies the crux of the issue.
Simmons only had to worry about Irving on Wednesday, but what happens when Durant and Harden are on the floor? In spite of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Simmons covering him at times, Irving scored 37 points on 22 shots and dished out nine assists.
While we can project matchups and schemes for a potential series, the fourth quarter is the biggest indictment on the Sixers chances of dethroning the Nets.
Brooklyn found themselves down by 22 early in the fourth. Short handed and on a back-to-back, all the All Star players were pulled and it seemed like we were heading for extended garbage time.
However, the Nets climbed back into the game, prompting Doc Rivers to bring back Simmons and Embiid with about four minutes left and leading by 12. Brooklyn’s bench continued it’s pursuit back, cutting it the Sixers lead to as little as three with a little over a minute left.
Nash opted not to go back to Irving in a bid to steal a game and the No. 1 seed from the Sixers, meaning all that work was done with role players such as recently signed Alize Johnson.
Philly won the game, but should not be feeling good about it. Brooklyn's bench gave the Sixers fits and the Nets are going to come back with even more firepower in a summer showdown. Durant and Harden are looming, and the Nets pose too many matchup issues to overlook Embiid’s dominance.
Durant has looked especially sharp since returning from a several week absence with a hamstring injury, scoring 31 points in 27 minutes on Tuesday. He only sat because the game became a back-to-back after Brooklyn's game with Minnesota was rescheduled for Tuesday.
The Nets have taken the only meeting of the season against the Bucks already this season, with two more in early May to serve as more of a reminder of who the kings of the East are.
In a seven game series, I don’t see how either Philadelphia or Milwaukee finds enough stops to slow down a fully healthy Brooklyn team and take four games from them.
Brooklyn is still a good bet at -106 to win the East.