A few of the intriguing subplots for juicy Sixers-Nets matchup

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Joel Embiid agreed with the notion that Wednesday night’s game against the Nets is more important than a typical regular-season contest.

Like the fans excited about the matchup, he's fully aware of what the Eastern Conference standings look like.

The Sixers and Nets both sit at 37-17 after Brooklyn's win Tuesday over the Timberwolves. Wednesday's game will decide the season series between the teams.

“I think it’s more than a regular game because there’s a No. 1 seed at play,” Embiid said. “We’ve got a tiebreaker that we need. You never know. They’ve been playing well; we’ve been playing well. They’ve been winning games; we’ve been winning games. No one seems to want to lose any games, so you never know, we might have the same record at the end of the season. Having that tiebreaker, it’s important for us. I really want the No. 1 seed.”

There’s never a shortage of intriguing storylines with this many stars involved. Here, we’ll touch on a few of the notable subplots before the teams face off at Wells Fargo Center:

Simmons has some skepticism 

If you think the Nets’ approach of building a star trio (Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden) and aiming to ride a phenomenal offense to a championship might not work, it seems Ben Simmons is on the same page.

He was asked whether he saw Sixers-Nets becoming a marquee NBA rivalry. 

“If they keep that same team, definitely,” he said. “But that’s going to be hard to do that. We’re going for the past champs, the Lakers. They were the ones who won the championship, so you’ve got to give the respect to them. Obviously, Brooklyn has a lot of talent. But at the end of the day, there’s only one ball and you’ve got to play defense, too. We’ve got to come in prepared mentally and physically.”

Since acquiring Harden, the Nets have a 120.4 offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass, second in the NBA behind the Jazz. Their defense ranks 24th (115.1). 

“There’s only one ball” is accurate in a literal sense, though it’s perhaps exaggerated as a reason to be concerned about the Nets’ legitimacy as a contender. What’s wrong with having tremendous isolation scoring options late in playoff games? 

It also helps that Harden has embraced setting his teammates up.

"I came to this team knowing that they have two special scorers on this team," he told reporters in February, per ESPN's Malika Andrews. "Obviously, I score when I need to, but as long as I'm getting everybody involved and Ky is getting the shots that he wants, KD is getting the shots that he wants, it's pretty efficient. Offensively is not the problem for us, we can score in bunches; it's defensively. It seems like we're getting a rhythm as of late. We just got to keep it up."

In contrast to his players, head coach Doc Rivers was oblivious to any hype about the next game on the Sixers' schedule. 

“Honestly, until we were walking into this interview, I didn’t know that we played Brooklyn next,” he said following the Sixers’ win Monday over the Mavericks. “I can tell you, for me, I’m a one-game-at-a-time guy. I literally close the book on Dallas when we get on the plane and start watching whoever that next opponent is. I don’t let myself get that far ahead, especially in the regular season. But it’ll be a big game. It’ll be a fun game for both teams. We’ll see what happens.”

What will Brooklyn do against Embiid? 

Opponents have frequently needed to employ Plans B, C, D and E this season against Embiid.

Having a single defender that can handle him is ideal, but it’s rarely a realistic thought. Instead, the game plan tends to involve double teams, variety and hope that he misses jump shots. 

The Nets have options, including buyout market additions LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, second-year big man Nicolas Claxton and 32-year-old DeAndre Jordan, although the former Lob City member has been out of Brooklyn's rotation for the last five games. 

We know Embiid will understand each of those players’ strengths and weaknesses, though it’s unlikely he’ll be worried about any of them.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in front of me,” he said last week. “As we’ve seen all season, it doesn’t really matter who has been in front of me. I just attack. Every single game, I want to be aggressive; I want to get the other bigs in foul trouble; I want to get to the bonus early. Now, they’re going to stop playing physical. Even if they're physical, I’m going to use that to my advantage to get to the free throw line.

“Getting to the free throw line is a skill. A lot of people call it flopping, but I’m physical. I’m going to  create contact, guys are going to react, they’re going to put their hand out there. If I catch them slipping, I’m going to get to the free throw line. It’s not as easy as people think. It is a skill; not everybody can do it. You’ve got to have a high basketball IQ to be able to pull it off.”

How much does continuity matter? 

A full-strength Sixers vs. Nets matchup won’t happen this regular season.

The Sixers played poorly in Brooklyn on Jan. 7, though Seth Curry’s positive COVID-19 test was of greater significance than anything that happened in that night’s game. With neither Durant nor Irving available and Harden spending his final days on the Rockets, Joe Harris scored a game-high 28 points for the Nets off the bench. 

Again, Durant and Irving were out on Feb. 6, and the Sixers’ stars all lived up to their billing. Tobias Harris posted 21 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, while Simmons played strong second-half defense on Harden and had 16 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Embiid was average by his sky-high standards this season, recording 33 points on 10-for-21 shooting, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals. 

Harden is sidelined by a right hamstring strain, while Irving (personal reasons) and Aldridge (non-COVID illness) were also out against Minnesota. Durant returned last week after a 23-game absence with a left hamstring strain. We won't know until Wednesday which Nets will play in Philadelphia. 

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Irving-Harden-Durant trio has played 383 non-garbage time possessions together. As one might expect, the Nets have been excellent overall, outstanding offensively and mediocre defensively with those three on the court. The team sports a plus-13.1 net rating, 126.4 offensive rating and 113.3 defensive rating.

The Sixers have been even better when Simmons, Embiid and Harris share the floor, which they’ve done far more often — 1,447 possessions, to be precise. Such lineups have a plus-16.1 net rating, 121.1 offensive rating and 105.0 defensive rating. 

In the recent past, it’s sometimes felt as if the Sixers were constantly searching for chemistry, weathering major injuries and banking on all the important pieces being healthy and coalescing effectively in the postseason. Now, that’s not too far from where the Nets find themselves. 

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