By Peter Gleason
So, what did last night’s 123-117 Sixers win over the Nets really mean?
For one thing, it put the Sixers back in first place in the East, a game ahead of Brooklyn.
It also means that if they finish in a tie at the end of the regular season, the Sixers will own the tie-breaker since they won of their three games.
The Nets and 76ers hadn’t played each other at full strength this entire regular-season, and they still haven’t.
The shorthanded Nets rested their starters, and their backups fell just short of a thrilling rally, in a 123-117 loss before 4,094 at the Wells.
“Health is everything. It’d be great to have the No. 1 seed — it means a lot, it’s valuable — but not at the expense of losing players or prolonging our injury situation. So we have to be very careful and make sure our guys get to the finish line as whole as possible,” said Nets coach Steve Nash, admitting nothing is guaranteed. “We may not get any games with our whole roster. Nothing is promised tomorrow.”
James Harden, Tyler Johnson and Spencer Dinwiddie are all hurt, and Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin both rested on the tail end of a back-to-back, as usual.
Joel Embiid had a game-high 39 points and 13 rebounds for Philly, while Tobias Harris added 26 points.
“Its important,” the Sixers’ Ben Simmons said. “We want that one seed.”
Kyrie Irving had 37 points and nine assists for the shorthanded Nets, but got pulled with his team down by 19 with 8:40 to play.
“I don’t know if we played a fully healthy game against one another so I think that’s yet to be seen,” Irving said. “We’ll see each other down the line hopefully these next few months.”
The Nets fell behind 112-90 on a Furkan Forkmaz bucket with 8:21 left before the bench — behind Alize Johnson and Bruce Brown — mounted a stunning 21-2 run to get them within three with 2:14 left.
They were three back again twice more, the final time with 1:16 remaining (118-115), but got no closer.
“When we got it down to three, we thought we might got this. We thought they were a little timid. We put a little pressure on. … We definitely thought we got that one,” said Brown, who had seven of his 14 points in the fourth quarter and was confident if the Nets and Sixers have a playoff rematch. “Super confident. You’ve seen what happened today and we didn’t have those guys on the floor, so we’re super confident.”
Johnson had eight points and eight boards to finish plus-16. He played a huge role in holding the Sixers scoreless for almost four minutes and without a field goal for the final 8:21. But it wasn’t enough.
“No, it’s still more work to be done. I feel like we should have won that, if you ask me,” said Johnson, whose tip-in pulled the Nets within 114-111 with 2:14 to play. But they never got over the hump. “Next time we’re in that position, we’re gonna get it. That’s just my mentality.”
Nash admitted he considered putting Irving back in the game when the Nets got within three, but opted against it.
“I thought about it but I didn’t want to take the group out that was doing so well. … I wanted to reward those guys for playing well,” Nash said.
The 76ers’ Danny Green opined that the makeshift roster the Nets trotted out could just be tactical gamesmanship, to get an edge if they meet in the playoffs.
“You never get a real feel, it might be a strategic thing for them,” Green said. “In San Antonio, some games we didn’t play everybody so the teams don’t know how to guard us, how to play us.”
But Nash insisted the Nets weren’t trying to game that future. Wednesday night’s lineup was just playing the hand they were dealt, health-wise.
“When you start to really try to be cute, it backfires most of the time,” Nash said. “It wasn’t a strategic. It was, this is what this is the availability we have. That’s simply what happened.”
Sixers coach Doc Rivers admitted as much.
“When the playoffs start, it’s a whole new beast,” he said. “We’ll be ready for them, and I’m sure they’ll be ready for us.”