The Brooklyn Nets are probably a more polarizing team than fans would expect. On one hand, they are a resilient group who has survived a roster upheaval and negative press to earn a spot in the NBA Playoffs. On the other side, people will have zero sympathy for an organization that made multiple concessions to its superstar players before ultimately seeing all of them request a trade.
That baggage has burdened the fan base, and has been excellent cocktail party material for New York Knicks fans. But it has not impacted the current Nets squad on the court. Yes, they are merely 13-15 since trading Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline, but they have done an admirable job at enduring the early growing pains.
Mikal Bridges has become a legitimate star in this league since coming over. This team plays hard and has more depth than they get credited for. Emerging stars and a scrappy identity are qualities that can be found on the 2018-19 Nets squad. D’Angelo Russell finally came into his own much like Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie was a fan favorite much like he still is now upon returning, and they met their end at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Fans, head coach Jacque Vaughn and the entire franchise hope that the last one will not be a similarity but instead a result to be vindicated. The Nets were not ready to contend back then. They aren’t now either. But do they have enough to rattle and possibly oust a team who everyone seems to think is?
That question will be answered starting Saturday. Until then, though, we will do our best to draw our own conclusions. Here are three bold predictions for the Nets vs. Sixers in Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
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1. Mikal Bridges scores 30 points for Nets in Game 1
Saying that Mikal Bridges reaches a mark he hit 11 times in his 27 games with the Nets hardly seems bold, but defense ramps up in the postseason and Philly head coach Doc Rivers will surely key in on his opponent’s best player. Furthermore, the 26-year-old has really struggled in April, shooting 35.4 percent from the field and 13.9 percent from beyond the arc in his last four games.
Those numbers are concerning. The Nets cannot compete against a team who beat them four times in the regular season without their two-way star firing on all cylinders. And I expect he will right away. Bridges appeared to just run out of gas near the end of the finish line after having to carry this team since he arrived. By Saturday’s 1 p.m. ET tip-off, he will have had over a week to recharge. That is all this rising offensive powerhouse will need.
The Sixers only faced Bridges once this year, and it was the very first game of his Nets career. He had a respectable 23 points, six rebounds and was 8-of-18 from the floor. He exploded soon after, which means that the Wells Fargo Center will be witnessing a prime offensive Bridges for the first time. Planning for it and guarding against it are two very different things, so expect Brooklyn’s new favorite son to re-discover his stroke and effectively attack the basket.
2. Nic Claxton holds Joel Embiid to under 30 points
Similar to Bridges for the Sixers, the Nets got a limited sample size of MVP-favorite Joel Embiid. He played in just two of the four games and produced extremely different results. In their Jan. 25 meeting, breakout center Nic Claxton stifled him, holding the big man to 6-of-18 shooting. However, the Cameroon native craftily still got to the free throw line with regularity and finished with 26 points.
Embiid ate Claxton alive in their second meeting a couple weeks later, going for 37 points and 13 rebounds. The former Georgia Bulldog had just six points and five boards. I think we will land somewhere in the middle for this upcoming Game 1. Embiid is dialed in and playing arguably the best basketball of his career. He knows what it would mean to finally clear the postseason hurdles that always seem to trip up the Sixers. It is unfathomable to think he will be shut down completely.
But Claxton has his own playoff demons to exercise after he missed his first 10 attempts from the charity stripe in the opening round versus the Boston Celtics in 2022. Those struggles have persisted this season (54 percent), but his defensive impact will remain strong in the first game of this series versus Philadelphia.
His 2.5 blocks per game trail only Jaren Jackson Jr. Embiid should keep getting to the line, but Claxton will hold the NBA’s top scorer below his 33.1 average. And further solidify himself as an integral part of the Nets core. He’s not one-dimensional, though, leading the NBA with a sterling field goal percentage of 70.5. He was recently honored by his coach, via Nets Kingdom.
— NetsKingdom (@NetsKingdomAJ) April 14, 2023
3. Nets vs. Sixers Game 1 will be one-possession game
Four years ago, the Nets stole Game 1 at the Wells Fargo Center before being routinely dismissed in four consecutive games. I am not bold enough to pick Brooklyn in this road matchup, but I think that the team’s effort will show the Sixers that they have a more competitive series on their hands than last time.
Cameron Johnson and Joe Harris can both be dangerous from distance and should look to set the tone early. Dinwiddie can be inconsistent, but is intensity is the fuel the Nets will need if Bridges is double-teamed. Dorian Finney-Smith has been sorely missed by the Dallas Mavericks and can be a nuisance on defense. Seth Curry adds another strong veteran presence on the second unit.
This is a good team that has just taken time for Jacque Vaughn to piece together on the floor. The NBA Playoffs are not the ideal time for working out kinks, but the Nets are closer to becoming a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference than most people realize.
In Game 1 on Saturday, we will find out if the Sixers realize it too.
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