Sixers-Nets Playoff Preview: Can The New-Look Nets Dash Philadelphia’s Title Hopes?

For the second time in five seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets will clash in the 3-6 matchup of the Eastern Conference’s first round. Just like 2019, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris are figureheads for the Sixers, while Spencer Dinwiddie remains a lead guard for the Nets, albeit following recent pit stops with the Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks.

Philadelphia wrapped up the regular season at 54-28, fifth in net rating (plus-4.3), third in offensive rating (118.3) and 10th in defensive rating (114.0). Brooklyn finished 45-37, 14th in net rating (plus-1.0), 14th in offensive rating (115.4) and 15th in defensive rating (114.5). After dealing Kevin Durant in exchange for Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and a wealth of future draft picks, the Nets were 12-15, 22nd in net rating (minus-2.0), 23rd in offensive rating (113.8) and 17th in defensive rating (115.8).

Post-Durant trade, these teams met once, on Feb. 11, in Bridges and Johnson’s first games as Nets. Brooklyn led for more than 45 minutes, but its offense collapsed down the stretch, scoring just two points over the final 6:52, and the Sixers stole a victory, 101-98. That Feb. 11 defeat actually proved to be one of Brooklyn’s better defensive showings after reshaping its roster, only posting a better defensive rating than the night’s 112.4 mark seven times in 26 other games.

Despite the presence of Bridges, Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale and Nicolas Claxton in the rotation, the Nets struggled with cohesion and communication in their switch-heavy scheme. Against the Sixers, those aspects didn’t plague them. They bogged down some of the potency of the Embiid-Harden two-man game, flustered Tyrese Maxey inside the arc (4-of-11 shooting, 12 points) and closed out promptly against their litany of shooters. Embiid and Harden nonetheless thrived, totaling for 66 points, 19 rebounds, eight assists and three steals.

Ahead of their series showdown, we’ll take a look at the keys for both teams, as well as X-Factors that could help swing the outcome to one side or the other.

Key for the Sixers

On March 4, in a riveting road win over the Milwaukee Bucks, James Harden dropped 38 points, 10 dimes, nine boards and one steal. In the ensuing 11 games he laced up for, he averaged 16.2 points on 52.1 percent true shooting. He also sat out four consecutive games in late March because of left achilles soreness. Since missing those contests, he’s looked better, though below All-NBA form, averaging 16.6 points on 57.2 percent true shooting.

Philadelphia needs him to be Embiid’s All-NBA co-star. His passing stirs the entire offense and primes the big fella for bucket after bucket off of ball-screens. Whether he can turn the corner on switches and out of pick-and-rolls against Brooklyn’s gut of defensively fluent wings, as well as Claxton, is crucial offensively.

According to Synergy, Harden ranked in the 84th percentile on points per possession in isolation during the regular season. He may not be the effervescent scorer of yesteryear, but he can still torch switches and ill-equipped defenders in space with his pull-up shooting, strength and craft. Brooklyn will switch a lot of his pick-and-rolls with Embiid, who has absolutely crushed mismatches this year and throughout his career.

If head coach Doc Rivers continues staggering Harden and Embiid, something he generally, consistently embraced after the All-Star Break, Embiid won’t be a release valve for Harden at every moment. He’ll have to get downhill and catalyze chances for himself and others to prop up Embiid-less minutes. If he can do that regularly, Philadelphia will be in good shape in the short- and long-term. If he can’t, the offensive potency that headlines its title chances and presumptive hopes of a comfortable Round 1 series become much more hazy.

Key for the Nets

Unsurprisingly, Brooklyn tumbled from 10th in offensive rating with Durant around to 23rd once he headed to the Phoenix Suns. The offense is predicated on a heavy diet of Bridges pull-up jumpers and Dinwiddie-Claxton pick-and-roll. In the 26 full games Bridges played for Brooklyn this season, he averaged a sizzling 27.2 points on 60.9 percent true shooting. The Nets tabbed him as their primary scoring option and he’s thrived. Maintaining that effectiveness in the playoffs, when defensive schemes and attention typically grow sharper and more pointed, will be a question for him to answer. Embiid also posed issues for Dinwiddie in pick-and-rolls when they met in mid-February. Do the Nets have a counter to spring him and Claxton loose downhill?

One place they did excel offensively against Philadelphia two months ago was in the open floor. According to Cleaning The Glass, their transition frequency was 22.5 percent (96th percentile), where they generated 115 points per 100 possessions. That only ranks in the 36th percentile, but it’s still a substantial upgrade over the 90.5 points per 100 possessions (28th percentile) they yielded in the half-court.

The Sixers have been susceptible on the break defensively all season. Only nine teams conceded a higher opposition transition rate (15.6 percent) and they were 17th in points per possession allowed in transition (127.7). At least in the starting unit, they’re generally a slow team lacking interior size beyond Embiid. With athletes like De’Anthony Melton, Jalen McDaniels, Paul Reed and Danuel House Jr. available, the bench is springier and livelier. But Brooklyn could establish some success in the open floor, especially if it can stymie the Sixers offensively on occasion, and counteract its half-court pitfalls.


When these teams dueled in February, Tyrese Maxey was still coming off the bench in a reserve role, where he struggled to produce efficient scoring. Three weeks later, he returned to the starting five and has rediscovered his rhythm, averaging 22.1 points on 70.2 percent true shooting over his final 19 appearances. If Harden’s individual scoring is stuck in a rut, Maxey’s blend of shooting and speed could buoy the offense alongside Embiid. Although Brooklyn has the wings and defensive anchor in Claxton to potentially perturb his 6’1 frame, his emphatic series against the Raptors, a switch-heavy team also touting various long-limbed wings, last spring (21.3 points on 63.5 percent true shooting) provides reason for optimism. Regardless, his performance may help swing a few games in either direction.

On the other side, the Nets defense will have to contain Philly’s offense without fouling. At .251, the Sixers led the league in free-throw rate. Post-trade, the Nets were seventh in opponent free-throw rate (.192). Philadelphia’s free-throw rate in the Feb. 11 battle was .387 (98th percentile). Embiid and Harden combined to go 21-of-22 at the charity stripe. They might be the foremost grifting duo (not a derogatory label) in the league. If they’re living at the line throughout this series, the offense is presumably humming. If Brooklyn is keeping them moderately in check, the offense takes a hit and relies more on shot-making. The Sixers are seventh in effective field goal percentage, so they’re by no means hopeless. It simply alters the tone of the series in some capacity and will be worth monitoring.