PHILADELPHIA — Everyone knows the 76ers are a win-now team with designs on competing for a title even if Joel Embiid’s sore left knee prevents him from playing Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Nets on Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center. They still have All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, and top shooters Tobias Harris and JJ Redick.
The question is what talents the Nets have to make it competitive. Based on their 2-2 split of the season series, the play of guards D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert is critical to any chance for an upset.
“This team really needs us to be aggressive, and that’s what we’re going to do no matter who the opponent is,” LeVert said. “We definitely try to look for the mismatch in every game we go into. We’ll see which mismatch it will be this series and we’ll go at it.”
Philadelphia coach Brett Brown recently said his team has struggled to stop the Nets’ guards, especially in the pick-and-roll and their ability to kick the ball out for open three-pointers. “The people [guarding] the ball have the hard job with the guards, and they’ve got capable scorers all over the place,” Brown said. “The abundance and frequency and efficiency of the three-point shots they are able to generate is scary.”
The 76ers did a better job in the most recent meeting on March 28 in Philadelphia when they held Russell and Dinwiddie to 13 points apiece and a combined 2-for-10 from three-point range. Only LeVert excelled with 18 points. But Russell and LeVert totaled 41 points in a home win Nov. 4 over the 76ers, Russell and Dinwiddie scored a combined 69 points in a home loss Nov. 25 on a buzzer-beater by Butler, and Dinwiddie had a career-high 39 in a three-point road win Dec. 12.
Lately, Russell has been hot from three-point range, and the Nets’ other starting guard, Joe Harris, led the NBA in three-point percentage. So they can stretch the floor early and they hope to push the pace.
Asked about the importance of transition offense after Friday’s practice, Russell said, “It’s big-time. That means we’re getting stops and we’re running. When we’re running and we’re in transition, guys get the feel for the game. The confidence starts to rise a little bit. It goes back to getting stops.”
Coach Kenny Atkinson said the Nets might mix in their small lineups with Jared Dudley or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at center to speed the pace and avoid a physical tussle with Embiid, if he plays, or with 7-3, 290-pound backup center Boban Marjanovic.
“We know we have to pick up our pace,” Atkinson said. “We can’t get into a wrestling match with them. But I think lineup is a big part of it, too.”
When Atkinson goes to his bench, he loves the combination of LeVert and Dinwiddie because both attack the basket and both are solid defenders with great length. Dinwiddie averaged 16.8 points this season, but in the final 11 games, he tailed off to 12.8 points per game and 33.3 percent shooting.
The Nets need Dinwiddie to regain his midseason form. At the same time, LeVert has recovered from a dislocated ankle that caused him to miss 42 games and appears to have regained his early-season effectiveness.
“He’s huge,” Atkinson said of Dinwiddie. “We need him to play well. He’s had success against them. His speed really gives them some issues. We’re looking for a really big series against them.
“I think Caris is kind of an X factor for us. He’s playing really well. I mean, really, really well. So right time, right place. I think that’s something that could give us a necessary boost to maybe steal a game here or there.”