Brooklyn is officially back.
Despite a rough finish to the regular season, the Nets (42-40) recovered at the very end to lock up the No. 6 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference and return to the postseason for the first time since 2015. The sixth spot was a best-case scenario that pits them against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Philly is perceived as a more favorable matchup for the Nets than if they fell to the Nos. 7 or 8 seeds against the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks. While the Sixers (51-31) have a realistic shot at marching to the NBA Finals, the Nets are live underdogs in the seven-game series, which opens Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia. Read on for three keys to the matchup of Atlantic Division foes.
Health of ‘The Process’
No player on either team is more capable of impacting the course of this series than the Sixers’ Joel Embiid. The All-Star center, who averaged 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, has appeared in just 10 of 24 games since the All-Star break. His health in Game 1 and throughout the series is critical for Philly.
If he plays every game, it’s hard to see the Nets doing much to stop him. Nets center Jarrett Allen played well in his second pro season, but the man known as "The Process" plays on another level. Any missed time from the 76ers’ elite big man is a massive opportunity for Brooklyn to assert itself.
Flex muscle, Russell
While the Nets aren’t as stacked with top-end talent as Philly — Embiid, fellow 2019 All-Star Ben Simmons, four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and potential 2019 max free agent Tobias Harris — they have a marquee player of their own in D’Angelo Russell.
The 23-year-old guard made good on his status as a former lottery pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in his fourth season, establishing new career-high averages in scoring (21.1 ppg), assists (7.0 apg) and minutes (30.2) while playing in 81 games and shooting 36.9 percent on 3-pointers, also professional bests. The performance was enough to earn him his first All-Star nod (as an injury replacement) and is part of the reason the Nets improved by 14 wins this season.
When Russell catches fire, especially from deep, there’s little opponents can do to cool him down. He’ll need to assert himself more than ever in the expanded minutes that come along with playing in the postseason.
Need a No. 2
Russell, like his jersey number, is the No. 1 option on offense. But who’s going to step up most often to lighten his load?
Sixth man Spencer Dinwiddie (16.8 ppg) ranked second in scoring, but he doesn’t always share the court with the Nets’ starting point guard. Sharpshooting forward Joe Harris, who led the league in 3-point accuracy (47.4 percent), will help, but rarely takes over a game.
The best candidate could be Caris LeVert, who finally appears to be finding his form after missing half the season with a dislocated foot. He averaged 19 points in 28.4 minutes over two games against Philly this season.