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Mikal Bridges knows Nets are ‘heavy underdogs’

Brooklyn's top scorer says stopping 76ers' Embiid is tall task

April 13, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The Nets will enter the first round of the playoffs as “heavy underdogs” against NBA Most Valuable Player candidate Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

But Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn’s top scorer since arriving here with Cam Johnson in the Feb. 9 deal that sent Kevin Durant to Phoenix, believes he and his teammates are ready for Game 1 in the City of Brotherly Love Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m.

“They’ll be tough. They’re the third seed for a reason,” Bridges told ESPN Wednesday night.

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“Obviously we’re the heavy underdogs, but we got a lot of guys that are not going to quit. … We just want to be who we are and have a good game plan and play hard.”

The Nets (45-37) did just that to capture the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed, holding off Miami for the coveted automatic bid to a first-round playoff series by going 6-2 down the stretch before Sunday’s meaningless loss to the 76ers at Barclays Center.

“I love us, I love our confidence in each other. I love how we play. … I’m really excited to go,” added Bridges, who averaged just over 26 points per contest for the Nets after they jettisoned Durant and Kyrie Irving, who went to Dallas for Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith.

The new-look Nets took a while to jell under head coach Jacque Vaughn, who helped Brooklyn stay afloat after a five-game losing streak last month threatened to drop it into the play-in tournament.

Just ask Sixers coach Doc Rivers.

“I think he’s done a terrific job, and he’s done it under extreme circumstances,” Rivers told the New York Post Wednesday.

“It started in the summer. They got a guy that said he wanted to be traded [Durant] and all summer people thought he was going to get traded, didn’t get traded, then they had a guy they were trying to trade [Irving] and didn’t trade. Then they come back and everything’s good. Then it blew back up.”

Vaughn never wavered.

After replacing Steve Nash at the helm following the first seven games of the year, the former Net guard and long-time assistant helped Brooklyn rise toward the top of the conference when it still had its twin superstars, then plugged the holes on the ship when it appeared to be sinking.

“Now he has a new team, and I think he’s enjoying coaching this group more, because it’s none of that stuff anymore,” Rivers added.

Vaughn and the Nets will try to stop Embiid, who led the league by averaging 33.1 points per contest, grabbed 10.2 boards and handed out 4.2 assists.

The 7-foot, 280-pound dynamo hit nearly 55 percent of his shots from the floor, including 33 percent from 3-point range, making him a threat to score from anywhere on the floor.

“He’s just so dominant,” Bridges ceded. “When he’s around the rim, no one can stop him. He’s also so skilled outside, with his skill set and his jumper.”

Mikal Bridges and the Nets will open their first-round playoff series with the 76ers Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. AP Photo by Mary Altaffer

The Sixers (54-28) certainly aren’t a one-man team.

Former Net James Harden, who was dealt to Philly from Brooklyn in February 2022, led the NBA with 10.7 assists per game while averaging 21.0 points. Harden is nursing a sore Achilles’ but will be available for Saturday’s 1 p.m. tip-off at the Wells Fargo Center.

“There’s a lot of people out there who thought he would never do some of the things that he’s doing,” Rivers said of Harden. “Not as far as scoring, he can still do that, but as far as giving up scoring to run the team, and he’s doing that. He’s been great at it, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Neither could Vaughn, who is relishing the opportunity to shock the Sixers and take the Nets to the second round, a place many thought would be out of reach after the sudden departures of Durant and Irving two months ago.

Last year, Brooklyn beat Cleveland in the play-in to grab the seventh seed, but got swept out of the opening round by Boston in four games.

Vaughn isn’t a big believer in changing things up for the Sixers this season. Or at least that’s what he’s saying as the series approaches.

“I look at keeping things pretty simple with this group, not overcomplicating this thing. Not introducing a bunch of new sets,” Vaughn said after practice Tuesday.

“All of the above. So that was the approach today. Defensively, just rehearsing what we’ve done in the past and making sure we’re clean with that. And offensively, being in our right spots, basic piece of it. Just real simple today, more about us.”

And about stopping Embiid?

Bridges believes it will take all of the Nets to get that done come Saturday.

“Yeah, just team defense. You know, play together, obviously we’ve been doing for all these years. This year, I think he should win MVP,” Bridges said.

“It just takes a team, you know? I don’t think anybody can guard him one-on-one in the world. So just, team defense and you’ve got to play for each other.”

Doc Rivers left Brooklyn with an easy win Sunday, but things will toughen up when the 76ers and Nets begin the playoffs this weekend. AP Photo by Jessie Alcheh

NOTHING BUT NET: Brooklyn went 0-4 vs. the Sixers during the regular season. … Game 2 is Monday night in Philly before the series shifts to Barclays Center for Game 3 Thursday night. Game 4 will also be in Brooklyn on April 22 at 1 p.m. … The Nets last played the Sixers in the playoffs in 2019, losing four games to one in the opening round.

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