PHILADELPHIA – When the Nets double-teamed presumptive league MVP Joel Embiid, he easily found his teammates, who carried the Sixers to a 20-point victory in Game 1 despite a suboptimal scoring night from the superstar big man.
Yet when the 76ers began double-teaming Mikal Bridges in the second half after his hot start through the first two quarters, the Nets did not have the same luxury. The Sixers were able to take away the three-point shot by crashing the glass. Brooklyn turned the ball over 12 times in the second half and 19 times on the night.
The Nets couldn’t generate enough offense to keep up with a high-scoring 76ers team with championship aspirations.
As the Nets continue an uphill battle in their first-round playoff series against the Sixers, defensive game planning – and making counter-adjustments – will be the difference between finishing the first quarter down five, entering halftime down nine, and losing in blowout fashion like they did on Saturday.
The Nets must find ways to double-team Embiid, which Spencer Dinwiddie said will be their game plan the entire series, and still take away Philadelphia’s other scoring options – while also better responding to the Sixers’ attempts to stifle Bridges’ hot shooting.
“Overall I thought our guys did a good job of the game plan that we had for them of trying to go get that done,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said ahead of practice at Temple University’s Pearson & McGonigle Hall late Sunday morning. “There’s some tweaks that we can make for sure that we will make and that’s the great part of playoff basketball. I was impressed with our guys ability to adjust when we needed to, so I’m very confident in that and I thought they were ready to play. What the first quarter looked like, I thought we were ready for the atmosphere.”
The Nets double-teamed Embiid on the high-post touch from the opening tip-off. He scored only 10 points in the first half on three-of-seven shooting from the field. He scored 16 more in the second half and made all 11 of his free throw attempts in Game 1.
Dinwiddie said the Nets were satisfied with how the Nets defended one of the best isolation big men in NBA history.
“I think we did a solid job,” the starting point guard said after Sunday’s practice. “I expect him to come out full force next game trying to make an impact. It’s not a guy who’s going to be held to zero points because he’s going to shoot 20-something times and get 10 free throws. It’s just not the case, so it’s about making it hard on him and then we can limit a couple more threes from them in terms of regular percentage wise.
“We’re right there.”
What was unsatisfactory for Vaughn and the Nets, and what could determine whether this series goes beyond a four-game sweep, is Brooklyn’s defense against the other four players on the court with Embiid.
The superstar center led the Sixers in scoring, but ex-Nets star James Harden hit seven threes for 23 points and dished 13 assists. Long Island native Tobias Harris also scored 21 points and made all three of his attempts from downtown.
The Nets did not defend the three-point line well in Game 1, nor did they attempt the volume of threes that traditionally lends itself to victories for Brooklyn. While Vaughn wants his team to attempt 40 to 50 threes a night, the Nets only got up 29 against the Sixers, converting on just 12.
Harden and Harris hit 10 combined. The Sixers hit 21 on 43 attempts.
“We’re going to give up some threes because obviously you see our strategy is to double Embiid, which means we’re going to give up threes,” Dinwiddie said. “But if they shoot 40% instead of 50% – which would still be very good – it completely changes the format of that game. Four more missed 3s, come up with a couple more hustle plays, and then we take our turnovers from like 20 to like 12, that’s eight more shot attempts for us.
“And these are all very normal, controllable things vs. saying ‘You know what? I don’t know what to tell you. We played a perfect game. We gave it our best shot and we just were short.’ I mean, that wasn’t the case.”
Vaughn, however, was quick to point out only half of the Sixers’ made threes came when Embiid sprayed the ball out of a double team. The other half were open looks against a lax Nets defense.
On one instance, the Sixers recovered an offensive rebound that led to an open three for reserve forward Georges Niang. On another, the Nets were sloppy with the ball, and the turnover led to a transition three for Tyrese Maxey.
“That’s the great thing about the film. It tells the truth,” the Nets’ coach said. “You take one for example: I think the game is a three-point game, and Tobias comes down on Spencer in front of their bench and he takes two dribbles and pulls up and makes an off-the-bounce three. That has nothing to do with double teams. So you really gotta look at all the possessions, and I’ve gotta convince this group to look at all the possessions and see which ones came from scrambling and which ones came from just normal basketball plays.”
Yet the key for Brooklyn offensively is to take a page out of Philadelphia’s game plan.
In his first playoff game as a team’s No. 1 scoring option, Bridges picked up where he left off in the regular season. He scored 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the field, up from his Nets average of 27 points per game. Eleven of those Game 1 points came in the first quarter and the Nets star tallied 23 by halftime.
And then, the Sixers started to double Bridges. They also found ways to better respond to Brooklyn’s attempts to show Embiid extra bodies. The Nets held Embiid to just 10 first half points and 26 altogether – seven under his league-leading season scoring average.
Bridges only scored seven points in the second half. He made his only two shots of the half, but the Sixers succeeded in taking him out of the game.
The Nets are now expecting the Sixers to start showing Bridges the double team at the opening tipoff of Game 2, not halftime. Starting center Nic Claxton, who only scored four points to go with his 10 rebounds and three blocks, said the team has to do a better job of alleviating the defensive pressure shown to Brooklyn’s star scorer.
“That’s one of those quick adjustments you’ve gotta be ready for,” said starting center Nic Claxton, who only scored four points to go with 10 rebounds and three blocks in Game 1. “Going into the next game, I’ll be more aware of it going to set screens, and we’ve all gotta make sure if we’re cutting off-ball or guys are spacing out for the three, we’ll make sure that we’re in the right spots.”
Dinwiddie said when Bridges gets double-teamed, the Nets have to be OK with him being removed from the play and playing four-on-three basketball on the second side of the court.
“Once you get two on the ball, your job’s done. We talked about that when they blitzed me and stuff like that,” the starting point guard said after Sunday’s practice. “It may not be a big scoring game after that, but you get that second defense incredibly well if they’re resorting to that defense because it’s basically an admission that they can’t guard you.”