More Sports:

April 19, 2023

Practice notes: Sixers have to 'put their foot on' Nets as series heads to Brooklyn

The Sixers focused on taking care of business on road against Nets and closing out their first-round series.

Externally, most people have already moved on mentally from the Sixers-Nets playoff series, and maybe that was the case before this matchup ever began. Philadelphia was a heavy favorite, has raced out to a 2-0 lead, and looks poised to battle the rival Celtics in a hotly-anticipated meeting for Round 2. The lack of focus on the middling Nets is understandable.

Inside the building, nobody is thinking that way, and those who are have done a good job of keeping it quiet.

"The next game ahead of you is always the most important game," Tyrese Maxey said at practice on Wednesday. "They're gonna come out in front of their home friends, and they're going to go out there and play desperate. Like they should, that's how the playoffs go, so we're going to go out there and try to compete our hardest."

"Everybody has pride in this league, teams want to win at the end of the day. They want to fight their tails off until they're dead in the water. You have to do that, you have to go out there and you have to put your foot on them, really figure out a way to win games."

If anyone knows the value of closing a series out before worrying about anything else, it's these Sixers. They were flying high last spring, owners of three consecutive wins over the Toronto Raptors that included a dramatic buzzer-beater from Joel Embiid on the road. Jubilation turned into agony fairly quickly – the 3-0 lead turned into a six-game affair, with Joel Embiid getting injured (for a second time) in the closing moments of a Game 6 blowout. Embiid would miss the first two games of the Heat series, and that was enough to put them in a hole they could not climb out of. 

So while the Celtics are on the brain for so many reasons, with historical baggage and present-day stakes living rent-free in the heads of fans, nothing else matters but the game in front of them. The Sixers have only taken care of business so far, and now it's theoretically time for the Nets to do the same.

For the Sixers, this is a glorious opportunity to get out of the first round as quickly as possible, getting another chance to rest on their laurels before the real games begin. The week off top-seeded teams get as a result of the play-in tournament has highlighted what a few days of rest and preparation can do to open the playoffs. Philadelphia came into this series fully healthy, prepared for Brooklyn's gameplan, and mentally sharp, a trio of factors that have rarely applied to this franchise all at once. Two wins in three days in New York City could give them a similar ramp-up period leading into a battle with the Celtics.

Part of the key for Philadelphia, in this series and beyond, will be to try to get James Harden back on the right track. An excellent stepback shooting effort in Game 1 papered over a poor outing inside the arc, and his issues around the basket loomed much larger in the scrappy Game 2 battle. Harden has said recently he is fully healthy, which is almost more worrying, as it leaves us to explain his poor run of form at the hoop through other means.

No one is sounding any alarm bells yet, and a couple of theories on Harden's struggles were floated at practice on Wednesday — issues with spacing (a topic we'll cover in more depth before Game 3), and Rivers offering that officiating impacts the success of his two top players.

"They are definitely conscious of not fouling," Rivers noted, "Though I will say they did foul. Statistically, and this is more of a league stat, not our stat, the two guys that get fouled the most in the league – in the league – and it's not called, are James and Joel. In the whole league, and that's a fact. So yeah, they're getting fouled, but they also are doing a very good job of trying to keep their hands back as well."

(Does this count as "begging for free throws," which Joel Embiid accused the Nets of doing at his Game 2 press conference? I will leave that up to you to decide.)

It should hearten the Sixers, though, that they've been able to win relatively comfortably with Harden struggling mightily in Game 2 and Embiid's scoring output limited by an aggressive Nets approach on defense. The Sixers have only been able to make the Nets play this series on their terms in fits and starts, and they have still outclassed the lower seed with relative ease. It is a testament to their adaptability, which has been on a different level from past seasons.

Will the Nets change up their coverages? Could more small ball lead to success for Brooklyn? These are questions we'll get answers to over the next few days. As the frontrunner, the Sixers have a simple task – keep doing what's working, and stay light enough on your feet to adjust to your opponent's desperation.

"Our job is to make sure we stay grounded," Rivers said Wednesday. "The goal is four, we've got two, and the goal is way more than four. We have to keep getting better."

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports