Sixers embracing pressure ahead of Game 1 vs. Nets

The Philadelphia 76ers began the regular season with aspirations of winning their first championship since 1983.

But the Sixers haven't even advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals since 2001.

After 54 wins, the Sixers earned the No. 3 seed and will host the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of a first-round series on Saturday afternoon.

Before the Sixers can even ponder a deep playoff run, they'll have to get past the pesky Nets.

"It's always pressure," Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. "Don't get me wrong. We should feel pressure, right? If you have a goal that is like ours, if you don't feel pressure, then you're probably an alien, but there's always pressure. It's not like we're thinking, 'Oh, let's get out of the second.' No. Let's win it. You know what I'm saying?"

The Sixers have a great chance to win if their two standouts -- Most Valuable Player candidate Joel Embiid and James Harden -- lead the way.

Embiid averaged a career-high 33.1 points per game to win his second consecutive scoring title. He has finished second to Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in MVP voting in each of the last two seasons. Embiid also finished eighth in rebounding (10.2) and seventh in blocked shots (1.7).

Harden, a 10-time All-Star, led the league with 10.7 assists per game. Harden was hampered by a hamstring injury for much of last season.

"James is healthy now," Rivers said. "Last year, that had to be tough. I've never been injured that late and getting in the playoffs. Not being in great shape in the playoffs is not a great place to be because everyone's running at their maximum level of physicality."

The Nets will look to continue a somewhat surprising run of success when the series opens in Philadelphia.

Brooklyn traded All-Star guard Kyrie Irving to the Dallas Mavericks and also shipped All-Star Kevin Durant in a blockbuster deal to the Phoenix Suns.

Even with Ben Simmons out for the season with back issues, the Nets still managed to win 45 games.

Mikal Bridges, who was acquired from Phoenix, elevated his level of play and averaged 26.1 points per game with the Nets following the trade.

"He's carried on as business as usual for us. My conversation with him is he's going to get the same shots as we've had before," Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said of Bridges. "We're confident he's going to make those shots. Nothing changes from that aspect. You try to predict who is going to guard him, what he's good at and how you can combat some of those things.

"For us, he's been a part of games at a high level before. I think he's determined enough to accept the challenge."

Bridges has produced three games of 40 or more points since the trade.

Without Irving and Durant, the Nets still boast plenty of talent such as Cam Thomas, Spencer Dinwiddie, Nic Claxton, Seth Curry and Dorian Finney-Smith, among others. This is a balanced team capable of winning on any given night.

"They're gonna key in on our sets, and we're gonna do them as well," Finney-Smith said. "Everybody knows each other plays, everybody's gonna probably throw a wrinkle in there, a different scout, so you just gotta figure it out as a team. They're probably gonna guard us differently than they did in the regular season and we'll probably do the same. It's gonna be a lot of schemes and whatever team can adjust the quickest and apply it."

--Field Level Media

Updated April 15, 2023