8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: 76ers -8, Over/Under: 216
With the All-Star Break now in the rearview mirror, the race for the Playoffs officially begins tonight as the Brooklyn Nets travel to the City of Brotherly Love to face the Philadelphia 76ers in a matchup between two teams that would love to improve their standing, from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was always meant to be a bit of a throw-away season for the Nets (25-28, 7th in Eastern Conference), who after ending a three-year postseason drought made major noise in the offseason, acquiring All-Stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. However, while the club received near universal praise for those additions raising their profile to bonafide contenders in the Eastern Conference, those expectations would be put on hold due to Durant’s torn Achilles, which he suffered in last year’s NBA Finals. Granted, Brooklyn knew that the four-time Scoring Champion would miss the entirety of the 2019-20 campaign, and while it is certainly debatable as to how the 31-Year Old will be effected long term following such a significant injury, his move to the Big Apple is a concrete statement from the Nets to the rest of the NBA that they mean business. So with that said, this term was always going to serve as a long prelude to what they ultimately will become, or hope to become if you’re a skeptic, with the rest of the roster receiving the opportunity to make their respective mark before the former MVP’s return. Now that that’s out of the way, how have Kenny Atkinson’s charges responded to these heightened expectations, you ask? Well, there really isn’t much to differentiate themselves from last year’s group, which finished 42-40 securing the Sixth Seed in the East before being eliminated in five games by their opponent tonight, the 76ers. That unit succeeded largely in stretching defenses from the perimeter and getting tot he Free-Throw Line, while limiting opponents on the opposite end by crashing the glass, led by a high volume Combo Guard, D’Angelo Russell, to create opportunities for the Supporting Cast. Move ahead to the present and you’ll find that they’re remarkably similar to their previous incarnation, save for Russell has been replaced by Irving (27.4 PTS, 47.8% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 26.3 PER), who is many ways has come off as a more efficient version of his predecessor. After two forgettable seasons in Boston in which the mercurial six-time All-Star was often criticized for his at-times selfish play and ack of chemistry in the Lockerroom, the 27-Year Old has an opportunity to reset his career, granted the chance to reestablish his value without the presence of Durant alongside him. Though he’s performed well when he’s be available, the biggest issue is that he hasn’t nearly been available enough, missing a whopping thirty-three games thus far to a variety of injuries, the latest of which has been a sore knee (the same one that he had surgery on a year ago). This has become something of a habit for the former NBA Champion, who has missed fifteen or more contests in four of the last five seasons. Coincidentally, the same stigma that his side is better off without him on the court has followed him to Brooklyn; the Celtics were 37-30 (.552) with Irving on the floor last season in comparison to 12-3 (.800) without him, and this season the Nets currently stand at a mediocre 8-12 (.400) with him and 17-16 (515) without him. Interesting stuff, right? Yes, this guy is certainly an isolation specialist and as was the case in Beantown, the basketball moves far more fluidly when he’s off the court, but that doesn’t change the fact that there isn’t anyone else really capable of creating their own shot or for others in crunch time like Irving does. This makes for an interesting final third leg of the campaign, for he should be healthy after missing the last five games heading into the All-Star Break, a stretch in which the Nets went 4-1. When we last saw them, Atkinson’s troops snapped the Toronto Raptors’ fifteen-game winning streak in a surprising 101-91 victory at Barclays Center. While the visitors certainly looked to be fatigued by the mounting notoriety of their remarkable run, the hosts were all too eager to exploit that sense, jumping out to a 52-40 lead at Halftime, relegating the reigning NBA Champions to a dismal 31.1% shooting from the field in the First Half, including 4-of-18 from beyond the arc (22.2%). While Brooklyn wasn’t much better in possession, shooting just 40.8% overall and 9-of-35 from downtown (25.7%), they efficiently assisted on twenty-seven of their Thirty-Six Field Goals, while battering Toronto on the boards, where they outrebounded them 55-42. Fourth-year Swingman, Caris LeVert (15.3 PTS, 40.4% FG, 37.6% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 3.6 AST, 12.2 PER), who missed most of last season with a broken foot, continued to make the most of his minutes, leading the team with Twenty Points on 10-of-20 shooting (50.0%), along with Seven Rebounds, Four Assists, Four Steals and a Block. Three-Point Contest Participant, Joe Harris (13.8 PTS, 46.8% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 3.1 AST, 12.6 PER), added Nineteen Points on 7-of-12 shooting (58.3%), while Spencer Dinwiddie (21.0 PTS, 41.7% FG, 30.9% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 6.6 AST, 18.0 PER) chipped in with Seventeen Points, Six Rebounds and Nine Assists. Tonight’s meeting marks the fourth and final meeting with Philadelphia during the Regular Season, with the Sixers taking the last two encounters, including a 117-106 affair at Wells Fargo Center on January 15th and a 117-111 decision five days afterward. Irving only suited up for one of those tilts, the previous meeting in Philadelphia, and could only muster Fourteen Points on a disappointing 6-of-21 shooting (28.6%) in 36:48 of action.
Meanwhile, there is another team that has struggled to live up the hype in 2019-20 and that’s the 76ers (34-21, 5th in Eastern Conference), who in this maddeningly inconsistent campaign have rarely proven to be greater than the sum of their parts. With Kawhi Leonard leaving the aforementioned Raptors and the new-look Nets having to wait a year to contend due to Kevin Durant’s injury, the window of opportunity appeared wide-open for Philadelphia to make a move, which was the expectation around the league. After all, Philadelphia was a walk-off three-pointer away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and after an Offseason that said goodbye to Jimmy Butler and hello to Al Horford, many pundits were pointing to Brett Brown’s charges as the logical choice to ascend in the East. However, any notion that the Sixers would simply rise to the summit has been squashed, for this is a team that has constantly gotten in their own way thus far, with an ill-fitting roster forcing Brown to scramble for the correct rotation and chemistry. So what has ailed this group, you ask? Well, where shall we start? Let’s begin with the Offseason, where they were forced with the dilemma of resigning the aforementioned Butler or veteran Swingman, Tobias Harris (19.0 PTS, 47.2% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 3.0 AST, 16.4 PER), to a long-term contract, after acquiring each via trade during the previous term. Philly eventually settled on the latter, a quieter, more efficient choice in comparison to the often brazen former, eventually sending Butler to the Miami Heat in a massive four-team trade. Management would then add Horford (12.0 PTS, 44.0% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 3.9 AST, 15.2 PER), who had been an essential piece of the puzzle for bitter rival Boston, hoping to team the versatile, playmaking Big with the uber-talented, yet oft-injured Joe Embiid (22.9 PTS, 46.6% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 11.9 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.4 BLK, 24.9 PER). The result of all this tinkering with the roster has created a bit of a mess, and if things don’t improve, it will likely cost someone their job. And the odds-on favorite to catch the business end of the proverbial sword if Brown, who appears to have run his course with the franchise; the venerable 59-Year Old has guided the 76ers from a four-year hell in which they voluntarily went a miserable 75-253 (.296), to back-to-back 50-Win Seasons. However, he simply hasn’t managed to unlock to the proper combination to get the most out of this particular group. Though versatile Point Guard, Ben Simmons (16.9 PTS, 58.4% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 8.3 AST, 2.2 STL, 20.7 PER), is finally making good on his substantial potential, it’s unfortunate to see that he and Embiid are looking more and more like a poor fit with each other, while Horford hasn’t quite hit it off with the towering Cameroon native either. Basically, there simply hasn’t been enough shooting and spacing with all three on the floor, with the triumvirate only occupying 16.2% of game time and carrying a disappointing Minus-1.0 Point Differential. Furthermore, Embiid’s long history of injuries appear to have shaped the 25-Year Old’s tenacity around the rim, leading to friction with the Coaching Staff, Management, and even the Fan Base. There is a sense that Philadelphia will eventually have to move on from the three-time All-Star, particularly as momentum for rebuilding around Simmons builds steam. With that said, enough with the negatives, for this is a team that has proven equally capable of playing to their potential, particularly at home, where they’ve been an NBA-best 25-2, winning eleven consecutive games. No team has been able to feed off their crowd more so than the Sixers, who have outscored their opponents by 10.1 Points per Game in that regard, shooting a healthy 48.6% from the field, including 37.5% from downtown, while dishing out 27.2 Assists, and dominating the Glass with a Plus-6.9 Rebounding Margin. When we last saw them, Brown’s troops bested the Los Angeles Clippers in a 110-103 victory, their third in a row heading into the All-Star Break. In this potential NBA Finals Preview, the two sides exchanged blows in the First Half, heading into Intermission squared away at 54-54. However, the hosts gained an edge in the Second Half, as Simmons nearly logged a Triple-Double during that period of time with Ten Points, Nine Rebounds and Seven Assists, while playing excellent Defense on the Clippers’ Leonard, who of course ended their season last May. Josh Richardson (14.6 PTS, 43.7% FG, 33.9% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 3.2 AST, 12.6 PER), who was a part of that aforementioned Butler Deal, exploded after Halftime for Seventeen of his Points, nailing 3-of-3 Three-Pointers (100.0%), as the home side pulled away late. Simmons would eventually bag his fifth Triple-Double of the year, totaling Twenty-Six Points, Twelve Rebounds and Ten Assists, while Embiid did the majority of his damage (Twenty-Six Points) in the First Half. Harris added Seventeen Points, but struggled to find his touch, knocking down just 1-of-6 Attempts from beyond the arc (16.7%). It was one of the more efficient displays for a team that can just as easily leave you scratching your head, dishing out Twenty-Five Assists in comparison to committing a scant Six Turnovers.