Sixers hold off Nets to take East lead
Short-handed Brooklyn squad comes up short in critical tilt
The Nets’ bid for Eastern Conference supremacy took a hit Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
But not without a significant fight.
Playing without Kevin Durant, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, Brooklyn nearly overcame a 22-point, fourth-quarter deficit before absorbing a 123-117 loss to the conference-leading 76ers in front of 4,094 fans at the Wells Fargo Center.
Though the teams entered the contest with identical 37-17 records, it was clear throughout the evening that Philadelphia was better-equipped to take the final regular-season game between the squads this year.
NBA Most Valuable Player front-runner Joel Embiid had his way with the depleted Nets squad, putting up 39 points and 13 rebounds to give the Sixers the edge if the teams finished tied for the conference’s top spot.
Philadelphia took two of three games from Brooklyn, but a best-of-seven series during next month’s playoffs could make that statistic useless if the Nets find themselves at full health following the final 17 games of the campaign.
“Still more work to be done,” said Alize Johnson, who scored eight points during Brooklyn’s ill-fated comeback.
“I feel like we should have won that, if you ask me. Next time we’re in that position, we’re gonna get it. That’s just my mentality.”
Kyrie Irving scored 37 points as the lone Brooklyn superstar on the hardwood and Landry Shamet added 17 for the Nets, who have dropped two of their last three games and are just 3-3 over their last six.
Rather than get on his team, rookie head coach Steve Nash instead relished the fact that the Nets nearly walked out of Philly with a win despite being in a deep fourth-quarter hole.
“We feel good about the way we played tonight,” said Nash, who sat Durant out of caution Wednesday after the former two-time Finals MVP scored 31 points in Tuesday afternoon’s win at Minnesota.
With Harden still sidelined by a hamstring injury and Aldridge dealing with an ongoing non-COVID-related illness, Nash was impressed that the Nets hung around as long as they did and even found a way to shave the deficit to three points late in the fourth quarter.
“We played hard. We played together,” he said. “You could tell our group fought for each other. … Win or lose, that’s something that we don’t want to ever be in doubt. To see that tonight and a performance in a tough loss it made us all feel really proud of the group.”
Durant is likely to be back in the fold come Friday, when the Nets host Charlotte at Downtown’s Barclays Center.
Harden is still at least a week from ramping up for his return and Griffin and Aldridge could be back in action this weekend.
But regardless of who takes the court for these Nets, they always seem to rise to the challenge.
And as for the Sixers, Nash was impressed, but he also knows Wednesday’s game wasn’t a true measure of where these teams stand heading into a potential playoff showdown.
“They’re a really good team,” said Nash. “They played well. They made threes tonight. So they had a pretty well-rounded performance and they got separation. That’s to be expected when we’re shorthanded; we’re not as deep as we normally are with playmakers.
“So overall I thought the guys did great to find a way back in the game. Had a couple chances to cut it to three, or four, and just proud of the fight. You’re not gonna win them all, but if you play like that you’re gonna improve all the time and give ourselves a chance to get better.”
The Nets have the remainder of the regular season to reel in and surpass the rival Sixers.
But whether they do or not, it’s very unlikely that the two teams are done competing against one another this year.
“When the playoffs start, it’s a whole new beast. And we’ll be ready for them,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers insisted.
“And I’m sure they’ll be ready for us.”
NOTHING BUT NET: When asked about gaining home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, Nash noted that while it’s important, it isn’t the only way for the Nets to achieve their goal of our borough’s first major pro sports championship since 1955. “It’d be great to have the No. 1 seed. I think it means a lot, it’s valuable,” Nash said. “But not at the expense of losing players or prolonging our injury situation. So I think we have to be very careful and make sure that our guys get to the finish line as whole as possible.” … DeAndre Jordan had 12 points and 14 rebounds in Wednesday’s loss. … After hosting the Hornets here on Friday, the Nets will hit the road again for a three-game trip, visiting Miami on Sunday, New Orleans next Tuesday and Toronto on Wednesday.
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