It’s not going to be so easy this season.
That appeared to be the Nets’ message to the 76ers on Sunday night when they defeated one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, 109-89, at Barclays Center.
The game was the first between the two teams since Philadelphia defeated the Nets in five games in the first round of the 2018-19 playoffs. Though the current rosters of both teams look a little different from the ones that played each other in April, and because both teams were missing star players, there is little doubt that the Nets wanted to issue some sort of alert to one of the NBA’s elite teams.
“They’re kind of at a different level from us right now, but it’d be great [to have a rivalry], considering the proximity and Philly and that whole thing and the excellent team they have,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said before the game. “I know it gets my competitive juices going, just having memories of that playoff series. It got a little physical, a little testy, so those are good, competitive things.”
Even with the loss, Philadelphia (20-8) is in a virtual tie with the Heat for second place in the Eastern Conference.
The 76ers entered the game with five straight wins and victories in nine of their last 10, but they played the Nets without leading scorer Joel Embiid, who was ruled out with a respiratory illness.
“It’s no easy task playing them without him,” Atkinson predicted before the game.
Well, it did look easy for a good part of the game as the Nets won what could be considered a statement game.
After starting the season 4-7, the Nets (14-12) have won 10 of 15. Sunday’s 20-point win was their largest margin of victory this season. It also was impressive in that they were able to dominate a good team less than 24 hours after suffering a tough loss in Toronto.
The 76ers’ offense looked shockingly awful for a team that came in averaging 110.1 points per game and was fifth in the league in three-point shooting (37%). The Nets held Philadelphia to 5-for-26 (19.2%) shooting from three-point range. They led from the middle of the first quarter and by 17 after three quarters.
“One of our best defensive performances since I’ve been here,” Atkinson said. “They are a good offensive team, really top 10 in efficiency, so it’s just an excellent, excellent defensive effort.”
Spencer Dinwiddie led the Nets with 24 points and six assists. He also brought his teammates on the bench to their feet when he dunked over Tobias Harris on an inbounds pass from Garrett Temple early in the third quarter to make it 64-52.
“You always want to beat teams you might play in the playoffs,” Dinwiddie said.
Joe Harris had 16 points and shot 7-for-11. Temple and DeAndre Jordan added 13 points each and Jordan had 11 rebounds. Ben Simmons led the 76ers with 20 points. Long Island native Harris scored 17 and shot 8-for-17.
Atkinson said before the game that his team and staff really grew during last season’s playoff series and that there’s nothing he would like more than another crack at it with this group of players.
“It was a crash course in pressure, game-planning, media, just the whole everything that goes with it,” Atkinson said. “I really enjoyed it. I want another chance at it. Obviously, it was exciting playing Philly. I thought the Brooklyn-Philly matchup was neat. I enjoyed it, didn’t enjoy the 4-1.”
That was clear Sunday night.