The Philadelphia 76ers made two monster trades this season with their eye on a deep playoff run. The Brooklyn Nets, who have completed an uplifting turnaround under Kenny Atkinson, are the first obstacle in their path. We take a closer look at what should be a fascinating matchup.
The central storylines
The big, seven-foot question mark hanging over this series is the health of Joel Embiid, who has been dealing with a knee injury, in addition to concerns over his conditioning. The 76ers have already conceded that Embiid may miss Game 1 and that certainly raises the possibility that this is a more serious injury than it first appeared to be. With a healthy Embiid, Philadelphia are firm favourites here, but the Nets become a more intriguing underdog if he is sidelined or limited.
The other challenge for the 76ers is the extent to which this roster is getting familiar with each other on the fly - and whether they can thrive in the postseason cauldron without the type of chemistry that is formed over a full season. The Phantastic 5 starting line-up is terrific on paper but they are still learning how to maximize Tobias Harris, and it is tough for Brett Brown to have a lot of confidence in his bench (they are especially thin on big men).
Brooklyn, on the other hand, know who they are. D’Angelo Russell is coming off an All-Star season, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert give the Nets a major boost off the bench and Jarrett Allen has the size to make Embiid work. But is it plausible to pick an upset here when Brooklyn’s main scorers are postseason novices? In that regard, the veteran presences of Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll should help to settle the locker room.
The key matchup – Jimmy Butler vs. Russell
The 76ers will likely experiment with J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons on Russell too, but Butler is the best man for the job. Expect to see them matched up in crunch time. Butler appears to have smoothed over some of the rockiness from his early weeks in Philadelphia and looks more comfortable in his role. If Butler is guarding Russell, the Nets will need to be wary of that matchup at the other end, where the 76ers star will have a clear advantage in the post.
Regular season clashes
2-2. Both teams scored a road win during the regular season series, but the common denominator was dominant Embiid performances, including a 39-point night in their late March showdown. With the 76ers’ glut of stars and the Nets never shy about firing up three-pointers, we should get some high-scoring games, just as we did during the season (127-124, 127-125).
76ers in 7. Philadelphia are going to have to really scrap their way through this series. The Nets have the shooting to win at least a couple of games and it would be no surprise if this one goes the distance.