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April 14, 2023

Sixers vs. Nets preview and predictions for Round 1

Previewing the key elements of the Sixers-Nets series, Kyle Neubeck gives his takes and makes his prediction for the matchup.

The Sixers and Nets are set to kick off their first-round playoff series on Saturday afternoon, with the regional rivals squaring off in the first game of the 2023 NBA Playoffs. It's a series most people expect the Sixers to win fairly comfortably, and if they don't, the dreams of Sixers contention will fade into the background rather quickly.

Here's our big-picture view of the series, along with a prediction for how it'll end up.

Tale of the tape 

We're going to do a bit of sample-size limiting for Brooklyn here, as their season-long stats are basically meaningless when it comes to assessing the chances of this version of the team. So while Philadelphia's numbers below are season-long, Brooklyn's only include from mid-February onward when Mikal Bridges and Co. joined the lineup.

(Our yearly reminder: EFG is a stat that simply adjusts to account for three-point makes being worth more than two-point makes.)

 Category SixersNets 
 W/L Record54-28 (3rd)  45-37 (t-8th)
 Pts. per 100 possessions117.0 (3rd) 113.2 (23rd) 
 Pts. allowed per 100 possessions112.7 (8th) 114.7 (17th) 
 Effective field goal percentage56.3 (6th)  53.0 (24th)
 Opponent EFG% 54.1 (12th)53.0 (4th) 
 Pace 97.4 (27th)97.88 (24th) 
 Offensive rebounding percentage25.8 (25th) 25.1 (26th) 

Brooklyn's advantages in this series are few and far between. These two teams are probably much closer in overall defensive toughness than this chart suggests, though, as Philadelphia's defense down the stretch is roughly identical to the number you see for Brooklyn above. If there is an effectiveness gap, it comes on offense, where the Sixers have a significant execution advantage over the Nets.

What's interesting is that the teams would appear to be wildly different based strictly on roster construction, though that hasn't really played out in practice yet. The Nets have been a lot slower than you'd expect for a young-ish and athletic team, perhaps because they've only been okay at preventing teams from scoring against them, limiting their opportunities to attack in transition. Brooklyn's danger as a transition team has only been theoretical up to this point — they rank in the bottom third in the league in transition scoring down the stretch, per Cleaning the Glass, and even if you filter that for possessions that are strictly off of steals, the Nets only rise to the middle of the pack, 16th in the NBA. It's even uglier off of live rebounds.

This Brooklyn group has not been a team that has been better than average in basically any measurable way on offense, nor have they been good in the ways that tend to hurt the Sixers specifically. It's theoretically possible that the Nets will look at this matchup and call for a more aggressive approach to offensive rebounding, hoping to punish Philadelphia for their oft-lackadaisical approach to ending possessions. But up to this point, they have not been very good at creating second-shot opportunities, unlike troublesome opponents of playoffs past like last year's Toronto Raptors.

Most important players: Joel Embiid and Mikal Bridges

I mean, duh, right?

You're all well-acquainted with the likely MVP of the league by now. Embiid's numbers against the Nets this season are staggering, and the one game he got to play against this specific Nets team was a bloodbath for Brooklyn, with Embiid pouring in 37-13-2 on 66.7 percent shooting from the field. Their only hope in this series is going to be hitting him with constant doubles and hoping Philadelphia's supporting cast can't beat them. That's easier said than done, at least if the Nets want to try to leverage their switchable roster to junk up James Harden in the pick-and-roll. 

The million-dollar question as it pertains to Embiid is whether he will ultimately make the right decisions vs. doubles when the stakes are highest, as that is a different sort of calculus than in the regular season. It will be important for Embiid to find a balance between shooting over the defense with bouts of hero ball and setting up his teammates when the Nets try to force the ball out of his hands. Embiid has been a better decision-maker this season and shows more trust in his supporting cast with each passing year, but it will be interesting to see if the pressure of the playoffs goads him into more tunnel vision. During some of his lowest playoff moments, a la Game 4 in Atlanta two years ago, Embiid's single-minded approach contributed to Philadelphia's defeats. A more mature Embiid should be expected to handle this series and these situations better.

On the other side of the matchup is Mikal Bridges, who has spent his final stretch of the year serving as Brooklyn's No. 1. You can't really say "masquerading" as a No. 1 because Bridges has been so successful as the top dog in Brooklyn, though the Sixers can take solace in the fact that it has been sort of a road to nowhere. The uptick in scoring volume and excellent efficiency for Bridges have not pulled the Nets out of the offensive muck as a group. Still, the Sixers have a healthy respect/fear for Bridges coming into the series.

"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," Tyrese Maxey said at practice this week. "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."

X-Factor: Brooklyn's switching

What is the defensive challenge posed by a team with several six-foot-seven and up players who can shuffle through assignments and credibly guard multiple players?

"The challenge is you can get stagnant," Doc Rivers said this week about 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."

In a sense, you could basically say that Harden is the X-factor for this series. If Harden puts downhill pressure on the Nets and doesn't allow their switching to slow down the offense, Philadelphia is going to generate an avalanche of open threes. Switching the Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll basically requires an immediate double of Embiid, opening opportunities for Philadelphia as the Nets scramble to get in place for that matchup. Cutters and shooters will have openings, and while Harden did not look his best down the stretch for Philly, he has been a consistently reliable playmaker for the Sixers even when he has not looked his best physically.

There's a better chance for the Nets to hurt Philadelphia with switching in Embiid-less minutes, at least in basic middle pick-and-rolls. On the other hand, these minutes will provide Harden and the Sixers with opportunities to exploit weak links in Brooklyn's bench rotation. In the February meeting between these two teams at close to full strength, Harden showed no mercy as he looked to involve guys like Joe Harris in ball screens. If the Nets auto-switch those actions and leave exploitable defenders on the floor, it's at that point you might see more of the score-first Harden we've seen at times this season.

Again, it is worth noting that the value of Brooklyn's switching has shown up on paper more than in practice up to this point. Perhaps this extra week of prep for a single opponent allows them to best leverage their defensive talent, but the onus is on them to prove they're capable of going up a level.

Prediction: Sixers in five games

If I haven't gone as in-depth on this series as perhaps I have other matchups in the past, it's because I don't really see the reasonable path to winning for Brooklyn. Picking Brooklyn to make this a series or win outright rests predominantly on the checkered playoff past for the franchise, Philadelphia's on/off switch, or Harden's health is worse than we've been led to believe. Those are not good reasons to give the Nets a shot.

The Sixers have by far the best player in the series and three of the top four guys. They have an elite offense, a very good defense when they're engaged, and an advantage in continuity over the Nets. Do not overthink this, even if the Nets manage to steal a game at some point in the next week. 

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