The Brooklyn Nets are not who or where the Brooklyn Nets wanted to be. They entered the season with an All-Star trio Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons that seemed like the bulwark of a championship team; now, in late April, the Nets find themselves halfway to getting swept out of the playoffs by the Philadelphia 76ers, their rival and chief foil. Things are admittedly looking grim—the Nets lost their first games of the playoffs by double digits and were held to just 84 points in Game 2—but there’s still flickers of hope. Even if the Nets are barely within the Sixers’ stratosphere in terms of talent and pedigree, they have a steadiness and a calmness that could carry them to a rousing comeback and upset series win. These are the three steps that Mikal Bridges and the Nets need to take to beat the Sixers.
1. Let Mikal Bridges cook
Ever since arriving in Brooklyn in February, Mikal Bridges has been a revelation, graduating from three-and-d specialist to the world’s best Kevin Durant impersonator. Like Durant, Bridges is a leggy midrange genius, gliding to his spots and flicking pull-up jumpers over the top of any attempts to contest. And also like Durant, Bridges has been liable to disappear at times for the Nets in the playoffs—his devotion to making the “right” play sometimes manifests itself as a tendency to not make any play.
Despite being the clear best player on the Nets, Bridges hasn’t asserted himself to the degree that he should. Years of being a role player alongside Devin Booker and Chris Paul and even dating all the way back to his time at Villanova has conditioned a certain degree of deference in Bridges’ game. No matter how aggressively Philadelphia hedges and blitzes Bridges, there’s no world in which he should be taking only one more shot than Spencer Dinwiddie.
As the series heads to Brooklyn, the Nets must teach Bridges that greed is good. In the 13 games when Bridges took more than 20 shots, the Nets went 9-4; in the 13 games he took fewer than 20 shots, they went 3-10.
2. Free Cam Thomas
Cam Thomas is a bucket. Despite the sundry deficiencies in his game (passing, defense, rebounding, effort, awareness, size, etc.), Thomas can score as well as just about anybody alive. With the Nets offense in the gutter, it’s time to unleash their secret weapon; the Nets simply cannot and will not scrape together enough points to win one game—let alone four of them—if Dinwiddie and Royce O’Neal remain such major parts of their offensive game plan.
Through two games, the Nets have tried to beat the Sixers by playing sound, smart basketball, which is roughly the equivalent of trying to win a UFC fight with fact and logic and rhetorical flourish. It doesn’t matter how savvy the Nets’ gameplan is or how sound their defensive rotations may be—the Sixers’ firepower outguns the Nets so comprehensively that all that froufrou tactical stuff is meaningless.
In this sense, Cam Thomas represents the Nets’ best and only hope at narrowing that gap. In his four starts this year, Thomas was an outrageously potent scorer, averaging 39.0 points on 65.1 percent True Shooting. Sure, there’s debate over what value Thomas’ ball-dominance, one-dimensional scoring carries if he’s not the focal point of his team’s offense, but he should absolutely be the focal point of the Nets’ offense alongside Mikal Bridges.
It makes no sense that Thomas has barely seen the court against the Sixers. While he may sabotage the Nets’ defense, Royce O’Neal and Dinwiddie sabotage the Nets’ offense, so replacing one of them for Thomas would at worst a lateral move. If Thomas plays badly, the Nets will lose, but the Nets would also lose by sticking to the status quo. If Thomas catches one of his signature heaters, though, he gives the Nets a chance and that alone should warrant serious playing time.
3. Embrace their Cinderella status
There’s a gulf between the Sixers and Nets, but that’s fine. There was an even bigger gulf between Fairleigh Dickinson and Purdue. As such, the Nets should take inspiration from March Madness where unheralded, lowly seeded teams have established a rough formula for how to pull off shocking upsets against bigger and better teams. The blueprint: chaos is a ladder.
Since the Nets don’t have the talent to play the Sixers straight up, they must introduce as much variance and entropy into the game as possible. In other words, sell out for turnovers and shoot a ton of threes—a big edge in transition points and three-point shooting is the surest way to fell a better team.
Accordingly, it’s time for the Nets to check their pride at the door and get weird to salvage any chance of a real run through the playoffs—shoot early shot-clock threes as soon as they present themselves, try to confuse Joel Embiid with junk defenses and unpredictable double teams, press Philly’s guards for 94 feet. Of course, playing so aggressively runs the risk of getting embarrassed, but the difference between losing by 27 points and losing by seven points is one of degree, not kind. The goal is to win, not lose by less.
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