Facing elimination Saturday, the Nets seemed to get a stay of execution with 76ers center Joel Embiid sidelined with a sprained right knee.
That hope proved fleeting and only delayed the inevitable. Game 4 at Barclays Center was the end of an up-and-down season as the Nets lost, 96-88, and were swept in their first-round playoff series.
A season that started with promise for a team led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving ended with loud 76ers fans cheering the Nets off the Barclays Center court. With Durant and Irving both gone via trades, what’s left was a hodgepodge team trying to sort things out in two months.
“It’s an opportunity for us to grow from this, to re-establish, to re-energize, to put our culture back in a place where it needs to be,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “A lot of guys in that locker room are going to be a part of that.”
Without Embiid, Vaughn expected a faster-paced game. But just like the previous three games, Saturday was a slog.
Neither team crossed 80 points until the 76ers accomplished that midway through the fourth quarter. The Nets held the 76ers to 9-for-24 three-point shooting, but the Nets shot even worse at 24.3% (9-for-37).
Despite that, the Nets led 53-42 early in the third quarter. The 76ers made up that gap with a 14-0 run started by James Harden’s three-pointer and ending with Paul Reed’s layup.
Nic Claxton hit a layup, but Tyrese Maxey scored on the next possession. Maxey made a three-pointer to close out a 21-4 stretch by the 76ers.
It summed up a series in which every Nets push was met by a more effective 76ers counter. The Nets had only 15 points in the third quarter, five more than Maxey had by himself.
“We didn’t really scout to play against them without Embiid, so they were playing a lot more free,” Spencer Dinwiddie said. “We did a good job slowing down Maxey and Harden, but it was just the timely rebounds and threes that [De’Anthony] Melton hit.”
Tobias Harris led the 76ers with 25 points. Melton scored all of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, including a trio of three-pointers.
Maxey and Harden shot a combined 10-for-38, but the 76ers got help from Reed, who started in Embiid’s place and had 10 points and 15 rebounds.
Game 4’s pace didn’t help Mikal Bridges, who looked fatigued as the game wore on. After three consecutive games with at least 20 points, Bridges had 17 points but shot 6-for-18.
With 7:50 remaining, he missed a pair of free throws with the Nets down 73-72. On the ensuing possession, Harris converted a three-point play and the Nets never threatened again.
“They’re a really good team,” Bridges said. “That’s something you just can’t shy away from. They got guys. They got players that stepped up.”
Dinwiddie carried the early scoring load for the second consecutive game. He had 11 first-quarter points, including a 27-foot three-pointer to end the period, and finished with 20 points.
Claxton had 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks, all playoff career highs, but the Nets got little to nothing from the bench. Seth Curry, who didn’t play in Game 3, and Royce O’Neale scored a combined nine points.
Harden finished with 17 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Maxey had 16 points.
The Nets also were done in by familiar disadvantages. The 76ers outrebounded them 54-38 without Embiid, had more offensive rebounds (15-5) and dominated in second-chance points (25-10).
In the series, the 76ers finished with 58 more second-chance points than the Nets, the largest differential in a playoff series since 1996-97, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
It was a harsh finish to what Cam Johnson called a crazy season — one that started with championship dreams but ended just like last season with a first-round sweep.
“[We] tried to merge basically three teams into one starting lineup in February,” said Johnson, who had 11 points. “That presents a unique set of challenges. And we tried to fight through them, I think we did and I’m proud of the group for doing them and sticking together.”