Sixers-Nets First Round Preview: Things to Watch, X-Factor, Prediction

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) controls the ball against Brooklyn Nets forward Mikal Bridges (1) during the third quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers finished the regular season with a 54-28 record, good for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They will begin a much anticipated postseason run with a first round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets.

The Sixers swept the four-game season series. However, the Nets are a completely different team since trading away both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Mikal Bridges is now their top player, averaging 26.1 points per game since donning a Brooklyn jersey. Only one of their four regular season matchups occurred after the trade deadline. The Sixers came away with a 101-98 win back on Feb. 11.

Here is a preview of the upcoming matchup including things to watch, an X-factor and a series prediction. Game 1 of the series is on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Things to Watch:

Harden’s Postseason Performance

The biggest thing to watch for the Sixers this postseason is the level of production the team gets from James Harden. For much of the season, he was one of the top guards in the league. He consistently scored around 20 points while dishing out 10-plus assists per game. He regained some of his prior explosiveness, using it to effectively win one-on-one matchups.

However, things began going downhill in the final few weeks of the regular season. Harden missed four consecutive games in late March with left Achilles soreness. He told reporters after the team’s win over the Dallas Mavericks the injury is not something he thinks will “completely go away.” His play, specifically as a scorer, took a noticeable dip after returning to the lineup. In his last five games of the season, he averaged just 16.6 points per game. He visibly looked a bit slower and less explosive than he was prior to the injury. It is also possible he took his foot off the gas at that point with the Sixers nearly being locked into the third seed.

It should become clear early on in the series if Harden is able to play at his peak performance. The Nets utilize a switch-heavy scheme defensively. There will likely be many plays where Harden has the opportunity to go up against a mismatch. When he is in rhythm, he should be able to successfully attack those matchups. If he can find success attacking switches and scoring in isolation, the Nets will have no shot even keeping this series close. If the Nets can prevent him from doing damage in those situations, they are equipped with the length and athleticism to give the Sixers some potential issues.

The Sixers should be able to win this series even if Harden does not play up to his usual capability. Although, having him able to be a threat as a scorer would make things easier for Embiid in this series. A strong series for Harden would go a long way towards quieting some of the doubts surrounding both his and the team’s chances at making a deep postseason run.

Sixers’ ability to handle Brooklyn’s length and versatility

The Nets have a ton of length and athleticism up and down their roster. The Sixers’ backcourt is, at best, average defensively and will potentially struggle defending against some of Brooklyn’s athletic wings. Brooklyn also possesses multiple players who can knock down open shots from beyond the arc including Joe Harris, Seth Curry and Royce O’Neal.

Keeping the Nets out of the paint will be important in this series. If the Sixers double and crash in on the driver, the Nets have many different players capable of knocking down open 3-pointers off a kick-out pass. The Sixers would be better off focusing their defensive strategy this series on stopping Brooklyn’s perimeter threats. Bridges, who has exploded since being traded to Brooklyn, can get his but the Nets will not win consistently if the Sixers adequately defend the 3-point line. It is not worth playing help defense on a drive to the basket if it means giving up wide open 3-pointers.

Tyrese Maxey in particular might run into some trouble in this series. He generally struggles when he does not have the advantage in both size and athleticism. Due to Brooklyn’s switch-heavy defense, Maxey will likely have multiple possessions up against a defender who is either bigger or longer. Head coach Doc Rivers should attempt to get Maxey as many minutes as possible against Brooklyn’s bench. He has the advantage in those matchups, whether it be against Harris, Curry or Cam Thomas.

X-Factor: Joel Embiid

Brooklyn has very little answer for how to defend against Joel Embiid. The big fella has a major size advantage over everyone on their roster. Nic Claxton, who has developed into a good paint defender, will be the primary defender on Embiid. Even in that matchup, Embiid has a 65-pound weight advantage. Claxton has the edge in speed, but Embiid should be able to outmuscle him around the paint. If Embiid can get Claxton into foul trouble, the Nets have no other guy who has a prayer of even slowing him down one-on-one.

The Nets’ only chance of slowing Embiid down is to keep him uncomfortable working around the free-throw line. They have the length to be able to do that in theory. Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith can crash in and double when Embiid gets the ball in that area. Embiid can either still attempt to attack in this situation or he can read the floor and get the ball to an open shooter. He has improved his decision making against double teams this season. It will be interesting to watch if that remains the case throughout this postseason. There is no perfect way to defend Embiid, especially when he will have a size mismatch every time he touches the ball.

Embiid is the X-factor in this series quite simply because the Nets have no answer for him. His ability to overpower anyone the Nets put in front of him should be enough to overcome any advantages the Nets have in other areas of the game. Sometimes all it takes to win is to have the best player in the series. In Embiid, the Sixers clearly have that.

Series Prediction

The Sixers have a clear edge over the Nets in talent. Embiid and company should have very little issue dispatching the Nets in this first round matchup. The only way this series should get to six games is if Brooklyn is able to steal one of the first two games on the road. Barring that, the Sixers should win this series in five games.

Prediction: Sixers in five