CAMDEN, NJ — After beating the Brooklyn Nets to start the 2023 NBA playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers returned to the drawing board with confidence. Joel Embiid and the Sixers controlled the game and pulled away in the fourth quarter after slowing down Mikal Bridges’ torrid scoring. They made the right adjustments but have to stay ready to make even more.
The Sixers know that the Nets will be looking to make adjustments after losing Game 1 by 20 points. Following a practice and film session on the day before Game 2, Rivers revealed one tactic he’s expecting from Jacque Vaughn’s squad.
“One thing I think they will do is go downhill and challenge [Embiid] more. They made the choice last night of going halfway and throwing. I think they’ll challenge him more,” Rivers said. “So we have to be ready for that.”
On its face, that may seem counterintuitive. Why would a team’s plan be to challenge Embiid more at the rim? Bridges tried to take it to Embiid on one drive and got his shot stuffed. The Sixers’ superstar has constantly sent back shot attempts in the paint. For Brooklyn, looking for more of those shots could help unlock their team-wide offense.
The Nets may look to get to the rim more because having Bridges settle for mid-range shots eventually failed them. To start the game, the Nets star got most of his shots off from within five and 20 feet of the hoop, pulling up for shots off the bounce and making Philly pay. Once the Sixers got a feel for where Bridges was trying to operate, they closed off that part of the floor.
“I thought in the first half, we didn’t do a great job with our defensive spacing,” Rivers said. “We were not pulled in enough and they saw a lot of open gaps and we showed that today [in the team film session]. We got away with that — and really we didn’t. They shot 67 percent. But second half, they played more in a crowd and we have to be able to do that. We cannot allow them to have that much space and think we’re gonna get away with it.”
Playing Bridges more tightly was one of the key adjustments the Sixers made after the first half. The Nets star had 23 points by that point and only had seven the rest of the game. No one else stepped up enough for Brooklyn to keep it close down the stretch. Beyond his inability to fight off the more aggressive defense, Bridges and the Nets may want to challenge Embiid more so that they try to do what Philly did in Game 1: fire away from deep.
All season long, the Sixers’ defense has been prone to drive-and-kicks. It would take Bridges channeling his playmaking chops very precisely but getting him deeper into the paint could draw enough defense inside to give shooters more room. Spencer Dinwiddie was able to make a few such plays but against a team as good at shooting as Philly, Brooklyn needs to be a staple of their offense.
With regard to planning for Game 2 with the tweaks that the Nets could make in mind, Rivers said that the Sixers always do that. But he added that they won’t necessarily deploy those tactics right away, as seeing how Brooklyn adjusts to Philly is vital information. The scheming that goes into the cat-and-mouse game of the NBA playoffs will unfold on the hardwood as the Sixers and Nets play Game 2 on Monday.
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