The top two teams in the Eastern Conference went head-to-head as the Philadelphia 76ers hosted the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night. The teams went into the evening with the same exact record (37-17), and they had shared the first two meetings of the campaign. So the third matchup was extremely important for a couple of reasons – the winning team would take a full lead in the game over the second in the standings and they would also hold the draw of the season as the teams do not meet again during the regular season. Given the stakes, some even made the case that it was the most important game of the regular season to this point.
Unfortunately, injury problems sucked a lot of juice out of the competition and robbed us of watching the East’s best teams compete at full strength. The Nets came into the evening extremely shorthand as they were without an abundance of key contributors including Kevin Durant, James Harden, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Sixers were without backup great man Dwight Howard, who missed his first game of the season with soreness in his left knee.
Given how concise they were, the Nets deserve a lot of credit for continuing to fight and keeping the game close until the end, despite the Sixers opening a 20-point lead in the third quarter. In the end, the Sixers – and specifically All-Star center Joel Embiid – proved too tough to topple for the Nets without their full complement of stars. Despite almost giving the game away, Philadelphia drew a 123-117 victory to secure tiebreaker with the nets and the top seed in the East at the moment.
Embiid led the way for Philly with a dominant 39-point, 13-rebound performance, while Tobias Harris added 26 points and 5 rebounds of his own. Kyrie Irving put up a show in the loss and he ran the Nets with 37 points and 9 assists. Here is a look at three important takeaways from the game.
1. Embiid continues to climb back into the MVP conversation
I run out of things to say about Embiid in these recs. Apparently, every game, regardless of the opponent, is the same story – Embiid physically dominates the opponent to the point that they are forced to pollute him again and again, because if they do not, he must score. Wednesday night was no different. Embiid did not have his best shooting night (only 13 of 29 from the floor), but he shot 11 free throws and made 10 of them. Embiid is actually an average of several free throw attempts per. 36 minutes than any other player in NBA history.
Embiid has a combination of size and skill that the league just has not seen before and this season he is starting to realize his full potential. When it comes to the MVP race, I wrote this about Embiid after dominating the Mavericks earlier this week, and it still holds true:
When Embiid went down with a knee injury last month, many wrote him off when it came to the MVP race. I even wrote that an extended absence due to the injury would probably cost him the price. However, Embiid only missed 10 games and now he is back, reminding everyone why he was the odds-on favorite for the pre-injury award. Plus, other leading contenders for the award – like James Harden and LeBron James – have also missed out on significant time. Nuggets Center Nikola Jokic is the lone candidate who has not been bothered by injury problems. Some voters will probably still keep the games that have been missed against Embiid, but he is still in the race and performances like the one he delivered [tonight] definitely help his cause.
After dropping out of the top five, Embiid moved back to third in latest edition NBA.com’s MVP Ladder. As long as he stays healthy and continues to play like he has had all season, he may still be able to win the award.
2. The season’s tiebreaker goes to Philly
Sixers and Nets now have 17 games left. Whichever team ends up at the top of the Eastern Conference when the regular season ends, the home advantage will benefit through the conference final. The Nets (22-7 at home) and Sixers (21-5) are two of the league’s best home teams, so it’s safe to say that both teams want that advantage. The two teams are neck and neck in the standings, and given how close they are in record time, there is a real chance that the Sixers’ victory on Wednesday night could ultimately be the deciding factor when it comes to post-season positioning, as the better record in head-to-head meetings is the first thing they go to if two teams are tied in the position.
After the game, Doc Rivers downplayed the importance of the victory a bit by saying he did not put too much emphasis on the position, but Ben Simmons acknowledged the importance of securing the top spot. “We want one seed,” he said. Embiid agreed.
“For me, one seed is very important,” Embiid said. “Every game we play at home, it just feels like we are invincible. So we just have to keep pushing, keep sharpening those wins and do our best to keep winning.”
For what it’s worth, the Sixers won both games against the Nets in Philadelphia this season, but they lost the game that was played in Brooklyn.
A possible preview of the conference final?
At this point in the season, the Nets and Sixers have separated from the rest of the flock in the East, and the game between the two teams on Wednesday night could easily have been a preview of the Eastern Conference final. Clearly, both teams need to take care of the business, as there are still several other formidable teams in the East, including the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and especially the Milwaukee Bucks. However, no one should be too surprised if the Nets and Sixers end up being the last teams to stand in the conference.
If it comes down to it, it will be hard to take too much from their three regular season meetings as Durant did not play in any of them and Harden and Irving each played in only one Iece. With full force, the Nets would, of course, provide a major test for Philadelphia’s defense. But they will also have to figure out another proach when it comes to defending Embiid because they have demonstrated that they have no cable to slow him down in a one-on-one scenario. There is still a while to go before the two teams potentially meet in a series, but one thing is for sure – if it comes to that, both teams are ready.
“When the playoffs start, it’s a whole new beast,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “We will be ready for them and I’m sure they will be ready for us.”