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April 10, 2023

Early questions about Sixers vs. Nets playoff matchup

How will the Nets defend Joel Embiid? What do the Sixers need from James Harden? That and more in questions previewing this Eastern Conference playoff matchup.

Six days from now, the Sixers will finally begin their 2023 playoff run, the run it feels like we've been talking about for the entire regular season. After the most successful year this side of Allen Iverson, all their hard work will now be judged by their performance over the next couple of months. No pressure.

The Brooklyn Nets are their first road block. Here are a few key questions coming into the series as we get rolling with previewing round one.

What's the plan vs. Joel Embiid?

I won't ask something like "Can the Nets stop Joel Embiid?" because that's a quick no and we move on to the next question. But figuring out their plan on defense is a little tougher than a normal playoff opponent, because the Nets are basically a completely different team than the one they started the year with.

Embiid vs. this version of the Nets only happened once this season, and it was an ass-kicking in Embiid's favor: 37 points on 12/18 shooting (12/13 from the free-throw line) with 13 rebounds, two assists, and two steals for the big man. Throughout the night, Brooklyn tried lots of different approaches to cope with Embiid's height and weight advantages against their roster. What they settle on will largely define the margins of victory in this series.

Nic Claxton was and will be the primary defender on Embiid, which gives him a significant size and strength advantage to neutralize Claxton's speed. Where the Nets could change Philadelphia's approach is how they setup behind/around Claxton, and we saw bits and pieces of the gameplan in action in mid-February.

Embiid's money spots have been around the elbows this season, giving him a chance to see the entire floor while denting the impact of double teams. Brooklyn can cause trouble in those spots if Philadelphia tries to play with a balanced floor with Embiid in the middle — long-armed defenders like Mikal Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith can pinch in and shrink the floor around Embiid if he tries to attack middle. The Sixers worked around this some by loading up a side of the floor and then letting Embiid attack the empty side. The Nets still tried to send help toward whichever defender was stuck on Embiid, but it was a long way to go to get in his airspace:

It's not necessary to clear out for Embiid, of course, and the Sixers can exploit doubles in the middle of the floor with sharp reads from Embiid. When Embiid ends up with a smaller player on him in a switch situation, that's almost always going to trigger a double from the Nets, and as long as Philadelphia has their spacing setup correctly, they should be a quick pass or two away from an open three.

Where it gets even uglier for Brooklyn is any scenario where Claxton gets in foul trouble. He's a far superior option against Embiid than anyone else they have, both because he's a good defender and because he'll keep Embiid busy on the other end. He fits within an archetype Embiid normally deals with fine (rim-running non-shooter) but Claxton has hurt Embiid with activity at times in the past. The sooner Embiid makes him hesitant on defense because of foul trouble, the sooner the floodgates open for Philly.

Does the Nets' length on the wing matter?

Brooklyn is fairly loaded with athletes on the wing. The Sixers have a defensively challenged backcourt, and one that doesn't necessarily want to be challenged by athletic wings all night long. That could end up being a problem in this series. 

The player I'm keeping my eye on here is Tyrese Maxey. He was pedestrian in the last game he played against Brooklyn (4/11 for just 12 points) though I'm more concerned about macro trends than his performance(s) against the Nets specifically. 

This is a matchup where he's going to face a size and athleticism disadvantage a majority of the time, and we've seen him struggle in those sort of scenarios at times this season. Boston, for example, has been a nightmare puzzle for him to solve. Milwaukee, which boasts elite individual defenders but a few suspect guys to pick on, has been a more fruitful battle for him. Brooklyn's ability to pass Maxey off on switches between guys like Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, and (to a lesser extent) Royce O'Neale will force Maxey to beat bigger, longer defenders in order to get his, which will make the minutes he plays with Harden on the bench a challenge. 

(On the other hand, Brooklyn will have to sub in some poor defenders in order to juice up their bench scoring, whether that means turning to Seth Curry, Cam Thomas, or Joe Harris). 

Defense is where the bigger concerns come in for Maxey, though that depends on how much you fear Brooklyn's perimeter options. Bridges has taken his game to another level with the Nets, averaging over 27 points per game since being traded from Phoenix, though you could argue Bridges taking on a bigger self-creation role is a road to nowhere. He's not a creator for others in a meaningful way, and Brooklyn's offense has been bottom-10 in the league since re-shaping their roster. There is some logic to the Sixers switching almost everything and playing up on shooters otherwise, allowing Bridges and Co. to win some individual mismatches without letting that lead to open threes for others on help defense. 

It'll be a good test for Maxey, in any case.

How does James Harden look physically?

This is arguably the biggest question facing the Sixers in Round 1, and by extension, for their playoff run. James Harden in the right vein of form is a potential championship sidekick, while Harden in his recent form is going to add to a legacy driven by playoff flameouts.

It's hard to get a read on where he's at physically, given how little these games have meant for Philadelphia over the last week-plus. But the last time we saw him look genuinely good physically was the first half of their win over the Toronto Raptors, perhaps the best 24 minutes this team has played all season. In that stretch, Harden was a destroyer of worlds, scoring 17 first-half points to go with seven assists while balancing rim attacks with elite touch from deep.

Here's the difference Harden makes against Brooklyn — the version of Harden who beats switches (or even just normal isolation defense) destroys Brooklyn's hope of making this a series. If he beats Bridges, or Finney-Smith, or any of these guys regularly, the Nets will basically have to pack it in. Their case for making this interesting rests on preventing Harden from reaching the paint, using doubles and switches and aggressive coverages to stop him from generating any momentum. One member from their army of wing-sized guys can hold up Embiid for a moment until a double comes if Harden has to get rid of the ball quickly, and the Nets are equipped to handle scramble mode okay once Embiid releases from the middle of the floor.

Harden vs. Claxton on a switch will be a pressure point in this series, and the numbers have not been good for Philly there so far this year — Harden shot 3/9 across roughly 21 possessions during the regular season, most of those shots coming from deep. Is that bad shooting luck, a sign that he struggles to get by Claxton, or somewhere in between those ideas? Time will tell.

The Sixers do not need a relentless, wire-to-wire effort from Harden as an attacker in order to win this series. But they do need him to be a consistent threat off-the-dribble, lest the Nets force Embiid to create everything himself in order to get his.

Can Jaden Springer win another playoff MVP award?

Okay, jokes aside, that performance against Atlanta on Friday night was pretty good.

Onto a more serious question.

What will Ben Simmons wear on the bench?

Alright, I promise, more serious articles and questions in the week to come.

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