Nets forward Mikal Bridges reacts late in the fourth quarter...

Nets forward Mikal Bridges reacts late in the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3 of their playoff series at Barclays Center on Thursday, April 20, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Mikal Bridges sat dejected at his locker Thursday. He leaned back a few times and at one point he put a towel over his head and slowly breathed.

Game 3 left the Nets exhausted from showing the fight coach Jacque Vaughn wanted. It also left 76ers center Joel Embiid hobbled at several points. It also had the Nets dejected after a 102-97 loss at Barclays Center

In a game saw two ejections and a non-ejection on Embiid kicking Nic Claxton in the groin, the 76ers who closed things on a 11-1 run in the final 2:15 of regulation. The Nets trail 3-0 and face elimination Saturday in Game 4.

Adding further insult was Embiid blocked Spencer Dinwiddie’s potential game-tying layup with 8.8 seconds left. It only reminded how disappointed the Nets were over the MVP finalist only being given a flagrant foul-1 for his first quarter kick.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in my career before,” Vaughn said. "For a guy to intentionally kick someone in an area that none of us want to be kicked at or towards, and for him to continue to play, I’ve never seen that before in a game.”

The play involved Claxton dunking with Embiid fouling him before falling. Claxton stepped over Embiid, which incited the kick. Royce O’Neale said it was blatant and reminded him of past playoff incidents involving Warriors’ forward Draymond Green

Claxton, who received a technical foul for stepping over Embiid, was also surprised Embiid remained in the game.

“He’s the MVP. I thought he should’ve been kicked out….but it’s not my job to referee,” Claxton said. “Maybe I should’ve sold it more instead of just clapping on the ground.”

Embiid said he didn’t remember the play in question. But he remembered what happened in the fourth quarter when Claxton confronted him again.
With the Nets up 87-81 with 8:48 left, he dunked on Embiid and taunted him down the court. That brought his second technical foul and an early exit.

What Claxton missed was the Nets falling apart after leading most of the second half. Mikal Bridges keyed a short run with a floater and then a steal leading to a putback by Royce O’Neale that made it 96-91.

The Nets never made another field goal after that. Tyrese Maxey went on a personal 8-0 run to give the 76ers the lead, capping it with a 26-foot 3-pointer that made it 99-96 with 44.7 seconds left.

After P.J. Tucker made one of two free throws following Embiid’s block, the Nets called timeout down 100-97. But O’Neale then threw an errant inbounds pass intended for Bridges to 76ers guard De’Anthony Melton, who iced the game with a fast-break dunk.

“Miscommunication. Threw the ball away. Can’t do that,” O’Neale said.

It was the final mistake in a game the Nets seemingly had in control. Things looked even more in their favor after James Harden was ejected with 13.6 seconds in the third quarter for hitting O’Neale in the groin.

Harden, who had 21 points, was issued an offensive foul before it was upgraded to a flagrant foul-2.

The sequence wrapped a dominant Nets’ third quarter where they outscored the 76ers 35-18. It was the best second half quarter they’ve had this series and Mikal Bridges led the charge.

After the 76ers led by 13 early in the period, Mikal Bridges scored seven consecutive points on a corner 3-pointer, tip-dunk and a layup on Harden while talking trash to the 76ers’ bench.

Bridges gave the Nets a 61-60 lead on a fast break dunk that ended a 12-0 run. It was part of a larger 21-5 run capped by Cam Johnson converting a four-point play.

“We just wanted a heightened sense of urgency down 2-0 and I feel like to start, we did that,” said Dinwiddie, who had 20 points after a quiet first two games.

Once again, the 76ers’ depth - led by Maxey - was too much. Maxey had 25 points and Long Island’s Tobias Harris added 15 points.

Melton had 13 points off the bench. Embiid, whose ankle was bothering him in the second half, had 14 points and 10 rebounds but five fouls and five turnovers.

The Nets’ fight was indeed valiant at home. Bridges finished with 26 points, 18 coming in the second half. Claxton had 18 points before his ejection and Johnson had 17 points.

However, the result was the same as the first two games. As frustrated as the Nets were that Embiid wasn’t tossed out, it didn’t overcome their disappointment knowing their season could end Saturday.

“We understand of the gravity of the situation so I don’t think we’re using the refs as any more fuel or something of that nature,” Dinwiddie said. “We have a tall task in front of us and we have a next game mentality.”

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