Although in the hearts of Sixers fans, the playoffs have not been a possibility for weeks, the loss to Miami Saturday night mathematically eliminated Philadelphia from the postseason. The Sixers will continue to play out the string toward next year against a Brooklyn team with playoff aspirations of their own. At 44-32, the Nets find themselves in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, 2 games ahead of Chicago for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Their pattern of play lately has been fairly straightforward: lose to playoff contenders like the Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, and Bulls, and defeat lottery teams such as Phoenix, Portland, Cleveland, and Charlotte. Unfortunately for the Sixers, they are most-decidedly a lottery team.
The man keeping the Nets in the top half of the Eastern Conference has been Deron Williams. After a year and a half of sub-par play in a Nets uniform, talk was everywhere about Williams being out of shape, uncommitted to his craft, and a diva more concerned with assigning blame to his coaches than taking personal responsibility for his team’s struggles. However, Williams has rebounded in a big way, putting up post-all star break numbers of 23.0 ppg on 48.0% shooting, and 7.9 apg, reminiscent of his prime days in Utah. Those numbers would rank him top 6 in the NBA in both scoring, assists, and FG% (among point guards). Williams has torched the Sixers in the team’s three meetings to stat lines similar to those second half numbers; if Jrue Holiday doesn’t embrace the defensive task of limiting Williams, there’s little chance the Sixers pull off the upset.
The other main offensive threat for Brooklyn is 7’0″ center Brook Lopez, who is averaging Per 36 Minutes career-highs over a full season in points (22.6) and blocks (2.4) over a full season. Lopez is an average shooter from mid-range at 39.6%, but really excels in the painted area. Spencer Hawes and the other Sixers big men have to establish position early in the defensive possession and force Lopez further from the basket. The Sixers defeated Brooklyn at home in March for their lone victory against the Nets this season because Hawes greatly outplayed Lopez. Not only did Spencer nearly record a triple-double with 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists, but he held Lopez to just 5 points after a hot first quarter. Surprisingly, Hawes has probably been the most consistent Sixer over the last few weeks, and will need to continue his strong play against one of the best offensive big men in the game.
Keys to the Game:
- Go at Lopez on offense. Although Lopez records a decent amount of blocks, those mostly come off weakside help; noone would confuse him as a rim protector. The Sixers attacked the rim hard in their March win over Brooklyn, earning 27 attempts from the charity stripe. Despite the Nets fouling at the second-lowest rate in the NBA, Philadelphia needs to force the issue and not rely on an inconsistent perimeter game.
- Keep a body on Reggie Evans. The task will fall upon Thad Young to make sure Evans does not approach the 4.3 offensive rebounds per game he’s averaged this season against his former team. Teams often forget about putting a body on Evans because he’s a non-existent offensive threat. Young and the other members of the Sixers front line must find him and block him out as soon as a shot goes up.
The Sixers’ road woes have been well documented and the Nets have plenty of motivation to earn every win possible down the stretch. Jrue Holiday’s defensive game has taken a step back this season, likely as a result of being asked to assume a much larger role offensively. I would look for Deron Williams to have another big game and lead the Nets to an easy victory.