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April 11, 2023

Practice notes: Sixers begin prep for length and athleticism of Nets

After a day off on Monday to collect themselves, the Sixers were back at it in the practice facility on Tuesday morning, gearing up for their series against the Brooklyn Nets. It's the first step in what the organization hopes can be a needed leap forward, with the Sixers hoping to get past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 20+ years.

In Brooklyn, the Sixers have an opponent that is in many ways their opposite. Their success will be by committee rather than driven by stars, they're long and athletic on the wing, and they will have to overpower Philadelphia with effort and activity, as they're not on an equal playing field with talent. Still, the Sixers see plenty they have to prepare for.

"They have the ability to shoot the ball, space the floor, they try to play fast," Doc Rivers said Tuesday. "They try to get in the paint to create lots of corner threes, swing threes, and transition threes, that's a big thing for them."

"We put in the initial game plan and then worked on two or three of their sets...we did a lot of skeleton work at full speed. We really emphasized played and keep playing versus their switching and all that stuff."

That switch-heavy defense (and Brooklyn's switch-friendly personnel) is the defining feature of this new-look Brooklyn team. The Nets start a trio of players 6'7" or taller with larger wingspans to match, and perhaps their best switch defender anchors the backline. Prior to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving asking out of town, Nic Claxton was making waves for providing the defensive spine to support the offensive firepower around him.

While Claxton will likely be drawing dead in single coverage against Joel Embiid, his ability to step out on ballhandlers and maintain a seamless switching scheme can disrupt teams from staying in rhythm on offense. In limited matchups this season, for example, Claxton has done well to force James Harden into tough, stepback jumpers over a taller, longer player, with Harden shooting poorly in those situations (3/9 overall, 1/6 from three).

"The challenge is you can get stagnant," Doc Rivers noted on Brooklyn's switching. "That's why people switch. People switch so you get the switch, you hold the ball and get stagnant instead of just keep playing. We've got to have quick rolls, we've got to have quick downhill actions. It's a lot of what we do anyway, and then the decision they'll make is they'll switch some even with Joel, and some they won't. We have to have the ability to see the difference."

Brooklyn's offensive identity will rely somewhat heavily on the success of that defensive approach. They have been average or worst in most offensive categories since reconstructing the roster – bottom-10 in points per 100 possessions, 16th in halfcourt points per 100 possessions, and bottom-five in offensive rebounding percentage. They haven't scored well, nor have they proven they can overcome subpar offense with superior glass-crashing. 

Mikal Bridges will be the exception. The former future Sixers draft pick will be the head of the snake for Brooklyn, and he has come on in a big way since being traded from Phoenix as part of the Kevin Durant trade. A major jump in usage has boosted Bridges' production in a big way, with the Villanova product averaging 26.1 points per game on 47.5/37.6/89.4 shooting splits. While the Nets have lagged behind on offense as a group, Bridges has lived up to his end of the bargain.

In Bridges, the Sixers see a player who is largely doing what he was always capable of in Phoenix, but doing so in a situation where he's the leading man rather than a role player.

"The team he was on with the Phoenix Suns, he played his role. They used to run plays for him down the stretch of games," Tyrese Maxey noted on Tuesday. "I remember the last time we played him here, they ran a couple of ATOs for him down the stretch of the fourth quarter. He's always had game, now he just has to shoot more, more volume, more confidence, more plays run for him, the offense is kind of flowing through him..

"He's going to be a tough out for us to stop, we're going to have to play him not just one-on-one, but five-man defense, he's got to see a crowd every time he touches the ball."

For the Sixers, the Nets are a mystery and a simple problem to solve all at the same time. We don't know a whole lot about this specific matchup thanks to giant midseason trades, but from a big-picture perspective, the Nets are a scrappy, star-less underdog with few reasonable outs against these Sixers. If Philadelphia comes correct, this should not last long, and that battle begins during a week of practice sessions.

Quick notes

• Danuel House Jr. did not practice on Tuesday and was spotted in street clothes at the tail end of Philadelphia's first practice. Doc Rivers noted he had hurt his foot during one of the last couple of games this season, but expected he would be okay by the end of the week. For the time being, sounds like a precautionary measure.

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