The No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers and No. 6 Brooklyn Nets will face off in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs. The Sixers finished the regular season with a 54-28 record, while the Nets went 45-37. The teams met four times during the season and the Sixers swept the series, but the playoffs are a whole different animal. The Sixers and Nets have matched up in the playoffs three times previously. Philadelphia bested the then-New Jersey Nets in the first round in 1979, while the Nets got some revenge in the first round in 1984. Most recently, the Sixers bested Brooklyn in five games in the first round in 2019. This series is especially intriguing since the two teams executed a major blockbuster deal about 14 months ago when the Sixers shipped Ben Simmons and other pieces to Brooklyn in exchange for James Harden. The Sixers look like the clear winner in that deal, as Harden had an excellent season with the Sixers and led the league in assists, while Simmons’ future with the Nets — and in the league — has become a question mark due to a combination of pedestrian play and health issues. Simmons won’t play at all in the series against his former franchise, as he’s been shut down for the season. It would have been interesting to see Simmons go up against the guy he was traded for and his former franchise in the playoffs, so his absence does sap a bit of intrigue from the series.
The Nets are a completely different team compared to when they started the season. Jacque Vaughn has replaced Steve Nash as head coach, and the team’s two superstars — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — are both elsewhere. That doesn’t mean the Sixers can overlook them though. The Nets still have a lot of talent, led by former Sixers draft pick Mikal Bridges, who has blossomed in Brooklyn as a top offensive option. Ultimately, though, trying to contain MVP favorite Joel Embiid might be too tall of a task for the Nets. Here’s a look at the full schedule and three main storylines along with a prediction for the best-of-seven series between Philly and Brooklyn. (3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets76ers lead series 2-0All times EasternGame 1 (at PHI): 76ers 121, Nets 101Game 2 (at PHI): 76ers 96, Nets 84Game 3 (at BK): Thursday, April 20 | 7:30 p.m. | TV: TNT | Live stream: TNT appGame 4 (at BK): Saturday, April 22 | 1 p.m. | TV: TNT | Live stream: TNT appGame 5 (at PHI): Monday, April 24 | TBD | TV: TBDGame 6 (at BK): Thursday, April 27 | TBD | TV: TBDGame 7 (at PHI): Saturday, April 29 | TBD | TV: TNTStorylines1. A chance at revenge for Mikal Bridges Here’s a quick anecdote. I was at the 2018 NBA Draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn as a credentialed media member when the Sixers selected Mikal Bridges with the 10th overall pick. At the draft, they have the main area with the stage and all the media and fan seating, and then they have a separate press conference room elsewhere on the event floor.
After Bridges was picked, I walked from my media seat back to the press conference room to hear what the newest Sixer had to say. As it turns out, Bridges, a Philadelphia native and Villanova product, was ecstatic to be drafted by his hometown team. Bridges’ mom even worked for the team at the time. It was an ideal fit. So, Bridges is sitting there wearing the Sixers draft hat, fielding questions about how surreal it is to be drafted by the team he grew up watching. A few minutes into his availability, news broke on Twitter that the Sixers were trading Bridges to Phoenix. Slowly, the media members in the room started to glance around at each other, each sporting a similar expression that translated to “who is going to tell him?” As it turned out, no one did. Bridges carried out his media availability in ignorance. Then when he was done, he was quickly whisked away into another room by a gaggle of public relations people, and the door quickly closed behind him. Bridges entered that room wearing the Sixers hat, and he exited about 15 minutes later wearing a Suns hat looking slightly dejected.
Heading into the series, Bridges admitted that he ended up extremely unhappy on what should have been the happiest night of his life. “I walked out they told me the news and I was literally pissed off,” Bridges said. “Like actually pissed off and it took me days after to like be appreciative of the moment like ‘Listen, Kal. Like you went top 10. Like you got drafted… It’s human nature to be upset about not going to the place you want to go, and it took me days to realize that. But I was pissed off that night. I didn’t go out. I stayed in my hotel room.”Now that he’s in the Eastern Conference, Bridges has an opportunity to exact some revenge against the team that broke his heart on draft night when the stakes are high. Bridges has thrived since arriving in Brooklyn in February, averaging 26.1 points per game while shooting 47% from the floor. He’s not going to singlehandedly swing the series or anything, but he could potentially catch fire and steal a game for the Nets while being a persistent headache for Philly throughout.
2. Pressure on the SixersHeading into this series, the Nets are playing with house money. No one expects them to win, and there likely won’t be any major organizational repercussions if/when they lose. The Sixers, on the other hand, enter the postseason facing more pressure than arguably any other team in the league, both individually and collectively. As a team, the Sixers are one of the league’s oldest and most storied franchises, but they haven’t made it out of the Eastern Conference since 2001, and they haven’t hung a championship banner since 1983 — before a prominent percentage of the current fanbase was even born. The organization underwent the most controversial rebuilding strategy in recent memory, and Philly fans and skeptics alike are impatiently waiting for “The Process” years to yield something greater than a second-round exit. The frustration in the city will be palpable with another early postseason goodbye. Embiid and Harden are both playing for their respective legacies and to combat lingering narratives regarding their performance in the playoffs. Similarly, Doc Rivers will be coaching for his legacy, and potentially for his job. There are some around the league who think that the Sixers could look to go in a different direction if the team is unable to advance deep into the playoffs. If the Sixers lose in a competitive second-round series to the likes of the Boston Celtics, perhaps Rivers will be able to retain his position, but if the Sixers were to somehow lose the series to Brooklyn, heads would almost assuredly roll.
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3. No answer for Embiid While playing against the Sixers, the Nets will run into the same problem that most teams do. They’re going to have a very tough time slowing down Embiid. There isn’t any single player on Brooklyn’s roster who is capable of matching Embiid’s combination of physicality and athleticism one-on-one, which means that the Nets are going to have to resort to other options, like double or triple-teams, or maybe some extended zone usage. Embiid has gotten much better at handling pressure over the course of his career, and he’s been lethal doing so this entire season while initiating offense from the foul line area instead of the block. The Sixers have surrounded Embiid with guys who can put the ball in the basket, so if defenses pay too much attention to the big fella, the other guys like Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris can get theirs. There are some teams in the league who are better equipped to guard Embiid. The Bucks and Celtics both come to mind, for instance, as both teams have several big bodies that they could viably throw at him. The Nets simply don’t have that though, and as a result they’re going to have their hands full — probably a little too full — over the course of the series. PredictionDespite losing three future Hall-of-Famers in the past 14 months, the future is still pretty bright for Brooklyn moving forward as they have a solid stable of young players and assets to build out their roster. As currently constructed though, the Nets just don’t have the top-tier talent to match up with Philadelphia in this series. They could conceivably catch fire one game and pull out a win, but that’s about it. Pick: 76ers in five games.