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Nets Outclassed By Sixers To Fall Behind 2-1 in Series

Steve Lichtenstein
April 19, 2019 - 10:08 am
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The Nets are getting a crash course in Playoff Basketball 101 from the Sixers in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals series, including the perils that come from failing to match their opponent’s physicality and the fatal consequences that come with mental lapses on both ends.

Brooklyn’s coach is enrolled as well.

The Sixers were probably going to win the series anyway given their whopping talent advantage, but Kenny Atkinson should be tossing and turning over how his club blew opportunities to give Philly more of a scare beyond Game 1.

In a must-win game for Brooklyn with Sixers star center Joel Embiid inactive due to a sore knee, Philadelphia walked out of Barclays Center on Thursday night with a 131-115 victory to go up in the series, two games to one.  Game 4 will be played in Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon.

The series isn’t over, of course, but the Nets appeared shell-shocked after another deplorable defensive effort.  Many of their core players are experiencing this for the first time.  So is their head coach.

Even though this team deserves to be admired for achieving this level of success in a far shorter time frame than anticipated when the organization was revamped three years ago, the Nets are here now.  They might as well try to win.

In that regard, several people I respect told me that who starts for the Nets doesn’t matter all that much.  I’m sorry, but Atkinson’s choices definitely mattered in the last two games.

In both of Brooklyn’s defeats, the Sixers ran away with the game early in the third quarter with the Nets’ starting five on the floor.  In Monday’s 145-123 Sixers rout, the Nets’ starters were outscored, 14-0, in the opening 3:25 of the second half before Atkinson made any substitutions.  Using that momentum, the Sixers poured it on to go up by 29 points by the period’s end.  Game over.

On Thursday, Philadelphia’s run was 17-5, turning a three-point game into a 15-point hole for Brooklyn before Atkinson decided to make alterations.  The Nets got no closer than six points the rest of the way.

Related: 76ers Beat Nets In Game 3 Without Embiid

In the three games, the Nets’ starters have played the most of any of their five-man units.  In 25 minutes, they’ve been outscored, 82-47.

“That’s something we’ve had a little trouble with all year,” veteran Nets forward Jared Dudley said of his club’s third-quarter woes.  “If you look at it, it’s one of our youngest lineups out there.  “We start a rookie (forward Rodions Kurucs), obviously D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen.  Credit other teams.  They’re just playing well.”

They’re also playing more.  In Embiid’s absence, Ben Simmons (31 points/4 rebounds/9 assists), Tobias Harris (29/16/3), J.J. Redick (26 points on 5-of-9 three-point shooting), and Jimmy Butler (16 points, 7 assists) all played over 34 minutes.

The Nets’ offense, as most know, is point guard driven.  However, neither Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie nor Caris LeVert broke the 30-minute playing time barrier on Thursday.

From what I’ve seen this series, the Nets’ struggles can be traced to forcing Russell to play as the sole ballhandler on the floor alongside Allen and Kurucs—two non-scorers—and wings Joe Harris and DeMarre Carroll, who are shooting a combined 8-for-26 (30.7%) from deep this series.

Russell, meanwhile, has been stymied by Simmons’ six-foot ten length.  Many of DLo’s pump fakes that he uses to create shooting space have been wastes of energy since Simmons is able to stay grounded.

The Nets had been far more successful when playing two of their lead guards together.  In these lineups, Brooklyn can choose to exploit Philly’s weaker defender.

On Thursday, LeVert had the hot hand in the first half, pouring in 19 points in the second quarter to keep the Nets within 65-59 at the break.

Common sense dictated that Atkinson ride his top performer at the start of the second half.  Instead, LeVert didn’t see the court until 5:31 remained in the third quarter with the Nets trailing by 15.

This is a recurring theme with Atkinson.  He is a true believer in his players and is often slow to change course.  We saw it with his hesitation in promoting Kurucs, a second-round find by general manager Sean Marks. when it should have been obvious from early in the season that he was the best man for the power forward job.  Atkinson still has faith in guys like Treveon Graham and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson even though they are usually detriments to the cause.  With backup center Ed Davis sidelined in the second half with a sore ankle, Hollis-Jefferson played the final 15:29 as an undersized 5.  Just because it worked miracles once in Sacramento doesn’t mean having Hollis-Jefferson throw up garbage at the rim from the restricted area will work in the postseason.

In the playoffs, coaches can’t afford to wait too long to make adjustments or else the season will be lost.  The question now is whether Atkinson has learned from these rotation missteps and will utilize his best players more at the start of games/second halves going forward.  He teased it prior to Thursday’s affair, but wouldn’t pull the trigger. 

“I think we’re going to look at everything,” Atkinson said in the postgame press conference.   “It starts (with) defensively, but I think we’re going to look at lineups.  Good thing it’s only 2-1.  We can come back here Saturday and if you can win it’s a different series.  Obviously the last two games, what we’re doing is definitely not working.”

This week’s lesson is simple:  Always play with two lead guards on the floor. 

Class dismissed.     

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.