Surprise, surprise. The battle of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference ended up being a battle.
With all their stars either injured or watching from the bench, the woefully undermanned Nets fell just short of climbing of climbing out of a 22-point fourth-quarter hole and were defeated, 123-117, Wednesday night by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Joel Embiid showed why he is a top MVP candidate, scoring 39 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and making a big block of Bruce Brown that resulted in a turnover shortly after the Nets had cut the 76ers’ lead to three points.
Dix Hills native Tobias Harris scored 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting for the 76ers.
The game had been hyped as possible preview of the Eastern Conference final as the two teams came in tied for first place in the conference. The win gave the 76ers a full game lead over the Nets. It also gave them a 2-1 win of the season series.
Yet, it’s clear that is also gave the Nets some confidence considering that they were able to make the 76ers sweat down the stretch without any of their stars in the game.
The Nets had seven players inactive for the game, including stars James Harden and Kevin Durant. Kyrie Irving, the only one of the Big 3 available, led the team with 37 points and nine assists. Irving, however, was not on the floor when the Nets staged their comeback as coach Steve Nash had decided to pull him from the game and go with the second unit when the Sixers took a 19-point lead with 8:39 left.
"I was just proud of the guys out there. It was easy to watch from the sidelines but my performance kind of gets thrown under the rug," Irving said. "My night was gone regardless, and I’m happy to be on the sidelines and see those guys handling business."
"We feel good about the way we played tonight," Nash said. "We played hard. We played together. You could tell our group fought for each other. You could see the guys on the bench cheering for that bench squad that was in there in the second half.
"It shows our connectivity and our growth as a group and that these guys care about each other and that’s really important. Win or lose, that’s something that we don’t want to ever be in doubt. To see that tonight and a performance in a tough loss it made us all feel really proud of the group."
Landry Shamet scored 17 and Jeff Green added 15. Bruce Brown led the Nets reserves with 14 points.
In this season, the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 could be significant as the Eastern Conference basically has three true contenders — the 76ers, the Nets and Milwaukee. While the No. 1 seed currently would play the winner of the series between the Hawks and the Heat in the second round, the No. 2 seed would likely get the Bucks in that round.
Much to-do has been made about how the Nets have stockpiled talent this season to form a super team. Yet, the Nets were able to challenge a stacked team like the 76ers without any of that talent on the floor. Brown was asked how he will feel if the Nets return here in the playoffs with their big guns healthy.
"Super confident," he said. "You’ve seen what happened today and we didn’t have those guys on the floor. So we’re super confident."