PHILADELPHIA — Before Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the 76ers, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said he was curious to see how his team would react while trying to come back from 3-1 down. “My guess is we come out fighting like lions,” Atkinson predicted.
File that under “famous last words.” The Nets came out more like “The Silence of the Lambs” as they were being led to a 122-100 slaughter by the 76ers. Philadelphia will move on to face the second-seeded Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“Maybe it’s the only game of the season where I felt like we never made a push back,” Atkinson said. “I guess it’s a growth experience for us. Down 3-1, I’m surprised we didn’t come out with more grit, more fight. Credit to the Sixers. They showed how powerful they are tonight.”
Atkinson’s faith in the Nets’ resiliency was based on the grit that is the trademark of the culture they have built. But Game 5 was a complete meltdown from the start. The 76ers opened the game with a 14-0 run before the Nets got their first basket on a Jarrett Allen dunk at the 6:08 mark of the opening period. Philadelphia expanded its lead to 23-2 before Spencer Dinwiddie made a foul shot with 3:19 left in the period for the Nets’ third point. By that time, the Nets had shot 1-for-15 from the field and committed five turnovers.
“I was so disappointed in our shot selection to start, like our first six shots were just uncharacteristic,” Atkinson said. Now credit their defense. They were locked in, swarming up. We couldn’t find space to get off a decent shot. They forced us into poor, poor shots, and then, they got out in transition and it was ‘Goodnight, Irene.’ ”
The 76ers led by as much as 24 points during the opening period, and things only got worse in the second quarter when the Nets never got closer than 15 points. The highlight came when Joe Harris, who led the NBA in three-point percentage, finally snapped a 0-for-13 streak from long range that extended back to Game 2 by hitting a three at the 5:45 mark. But after that basket, the Nets made just one of their last 12 shots before halftime.
Asked which adjustment by 76ers coach Brett Brown hurt the most, Atkinson said, “I think their defense on Joe Harris really slowed us down. He’s kind of our engine.”
The 76ers led at halftime by a 60-31 margin. What that meant was they could have gone scoreless for the entire second period and still held a one-point halftime lead. The Nets didn’t score their 32nd point until Caris LeVert made a foul shot with 9:45 left in the third quarter. That was after the 76ers opened the period with an 8-0 run. Their lead reached a high of 39 points in the third quarter.
LeVert led the Nets with 18 points, but All-Star D’Angelo Russell struggled through a 3-for-16 shooting night to finish with eight points and Dinwiddie scored three on 1-for-7 shooting. Joel Embiid topped five 76ers in double figures with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
“Everyone knows you’re not going to let one game ruin your whole season,” Jared Dudley said. “It’s unfortunate, but it was a hell of a season for us to come in here, get the sixth seed, steal Game 1 battling this team of basically four All-Stars. You’ve got to give props to them, but for us it was a hell of a season. Now you have a building block for the future.”
Few expected the Nets to go 42-40 or reach the playoffs in just the third season of their rebuild under general manager Sean Marks and Atkinson. That was an amazing accomplishment of which they can be proud despite the disappointing end of four straight playoff losses.
“We knew going into this year the potential we had,” LeVert said. “We kind of quietly expected to make the playoffs. This was definitely one of our goals. But going forward, we have a long way to go. We can’t wait to attack the summer.”
No one grew more this season than Russell. “I’ve had a blast to be honest,” Russell said. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing this game with a great group of guys as well.”