The top two teams in the Eastern Conference went head-to-head when the Philadelphia 76ers hosted the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night. The teams entered the evening with the same exact record (37-17) and they had split 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 game lead over the other in the standings, and they would also hold the season tiebreaker, as the teams won’t 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 issues sucked a lot of juice out of the contest and robbed us of seeing the East’s best teams compete at full strength. The Nets entered the evening extremely shorthanded as they were without a plethora of key contributors including Kevin Durant, James Harden, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Sixers were without backup big man Dwight Howard, who missed his first game of the season with left knee soreness.
Given how shorthanded they were, the Nets deserve a lot of credit for continuing to fight and keeping the game close all the way until the end, despite the fact that the Sixers opened up a 20-point lead in the third quarter. Ultimately though, the Sixers — and specifically All-Star center Joel Embiid — proved to be too tough to topple for the Nets without their full complement of stars. Despite almost giving the game away, Philadelphia pulled out a 123-117 win to secure the tiebreaker with the Nets, and the top seed in the East for the time being.
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 on a show in the loss and he paced the Nets with 37 points and 9 assists. Here’s a look at three key takeaways from the game.
1. Embiid continues to climb back into the MVP conversation
I’m running out of things to say about Embiid in these recaps. Seemingly every game, regardless of the opponent it’s the same story — Embiid physically dominates the opposition to the point that they are forced to foul him, over and over again, because if they don’t, he’s going to score. Wednesday night was no different. Embiid didn’t have his best shooting night (just 13 of 29 from the floor), but he shot 11 free throws and made 10 of them. Embiid, in fact, is averaging more 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 hasn’t seen before, and this season he’s starting to realize his full potential. When it comes to the MVP race, I wrote this about Embiid after he dominated the Mavericks earlier this week, and it still applies:
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 likely cost him the award. Embiid only missed 10 games though, and now he’s back reminding everyone why he was the odds-on favorite for the award prior to the injury. Plus, other leading candidates for the award — like James Harden and LeBron James — have also missed significant time. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the lone candidate that hasn’t been bothered by injury issues. Some voters will likely still hold the games missed against Embiid, but he’s still in the race, and performances like the one he delivered [tonight] certainly help his case.
After dropping out of the top five, Embiid moved back up to third in the most recent edition NBA.com’s MVP Ladder. As long as he remains healthy and continues to play like he has all season he could potentially still win the award.
2. The season tiebreaker goes to Philly
The Sixers and Nets each now have 17 games remaining. Whichever team ultimately ends up at the top of the Eastern Conference when the regular season ends will have homecourt advantage through the conference finals. The Nets (22-7 at home) and the 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 record-wise, there’s a real chance that the Sixers’ win on Wednesday night could ultimately be the determining factor when it comes to postseason positioning, as the better record in head-to-head meetings is the first thing they go to if two teams are tied in the standings.
After the game, Doc Rivers downplayed the importance of the win a bit by saying that he doesn’t pay too much attention to the standings, but Ben Simmons acknowledged the importance of securing the top seed. “We want that one seed,” he said. Embiid agreed.
“For me, the one seed is very important,” Embiid said. “Every game we play at home, it just feels like we’re unbeatable. So we just gotta keep pushing, keep grinding out these 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.
3. A potential conference finals preview?
At this point in the season, the Nets and Sixers have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the East, and the game between the two teams on Wednesday night could have easily been an Eastern Conference finals preview. Obviously, both teams will have to take care of business, as there are still several other formidable teams in the East, including the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, and most notably, the Milwaukee Bucks. However, no one should be too surprised if the Nets and Sixers end up being the last teams standing in the conference.
If it does come to that, it will be tough to take too much from their three regular season meetings, since Durant didn’t play in any of them, and Harden and Irving each played in just one apiece. At full strength, the Nets would obviously provide a major test for Philadelphia’s defense. But, they’ll also have to figure out a different approach when it comes to defending Embiid, because they’ve demonstrated that they don’t have anyone capable of slowing him down in a one-on-one scenario. There’s still a while to go before the two teams would potentially meet in a series, but one thing is for certain — if it comes to that, both teams will be ready.
“When the playoffs start it’s a whole new beast,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “We’ll be ready for them, and I’m sure they’ll be ready for us.”