A few Nets beat writers caught up with Sean Marks in the hallway of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia early Saturday evening. They were looking for a reaction following Marks’ first playoff game as Brooklyn’s general manager, a shockingly dominating 111-102 victory over the 76ers that gave the Nets a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals series.
Marks declined to respond, directing the reporters to talk to the players.
But he was all smiles when he said it.
Deservedly so. His Nets had the look of a team that was beyond just “happy to be there.”
Sure, it was only one game, one in which the Nets benefitted from facing Sixers star center Joel Embiid while hobbled. Embiid was listed as doubtful until game time with a sore knee and then shot 5-for-15 from the field against a team he normally obliterates. His 12 free throws enabled his stat line to appear as a solid 22 points, 15 rebounds and four assists, but he was minus-17 in just 24 minutes, unable to keep up with the Nets’ pace after playing just twice in Philadelphia’s last seven games.
Embiid will only have one recovery day before Game 2 on Monday night in Philly.
That presents a giant opportunity for Brooklyn. Forget what you heard and read about this matchup (including in this forum). They were all presented under the assumption that Embiid was healthy enough to sway the series. Brooklyn had no answers for Embiid in four regular-season meetings in which he averaged 30/14.3/5 with a 60/45.5/80.4 shooting split.
Much has been made of the young core that Marks has assembled, with three players in the starting lineup (D’Angelo Russell, Rodions Kurucs and Jarrett Allen) age 23 or younger. Marks plucked NBA 3-point champion Joe Harris and sixth-man extraordinaire Spencer Dinwiddie out of obscurity in the last three years and watched them excel in coach Kenny Atkinson’s development program.
Yet it was the work of Marks’ “Vet Nets” -- backups Ed Davis and Jared Dudley -- who willed Brooklyn to its first playoff win since 2015 by slowing down Embiid.
Atkinson called Davis “a game-changer” after the win. And he was just as effusive about Dudley, whose impact goes well beyond the often-puny numbers in his row in the box score. The 13 of the 28 total minutes he was forced to play as a severely undersized five were textbook.
“I think (Dudley) helps more so on a team like us,” Atkinson said. “I’m not sure if he’s on the Warriors it shows as much. For a young team like us, his savvy, his know-how, it’s just at another level. He’s got a sixth sense in terms of basketball IQ. There’s a lot of stuff you guys don’t see that he does -- little box-outs, his understanding of spacing the floor on offense. It’s been a huge surprise for us to have him contribute this much.”
Dudley’s biggest contribution came with about four minutes remaining in the game. The Sixers were down 11 but gaining momentum. Embiid blocked a Dinwiddie driving layup, and then Ben Simmons led the Sixers in transition on a two-on-one with 36-point scoring machine Jimmy Butler against Dudley.
Dudley baited the skittish Simmons perfectly, intercepting his pass to Butler.Not one known for his wheels, Dudley immediately raced the other way and drew a shooting foul. The sequence epitomized the value that Dudley’s instincts have given this team all season,
“If (Simmons) would have gone up for (a shot), I was going to foul him and make him make the free throws -- I don’t care if he was 10-for-10,” Dudley said. “And so I kind of leaned towards Jimmy Butler.”
You’d have thought that the Nets would have been the team that would get rattled, with so many postseason first-timers playing in a very hostile environment. However, the Philly faithful turned its hostility onto its own, booing the 76ers at several turns. Some Sixers admitted afterward that it had an effect, making them hesitate before shooting.
Philadelphia shot 28% from outside 5 feet, including 12% on 3-pointers, numbers that could easily be outliers. J.J. Redick and Mike Scott, two of the Sixers’ best 3-point shooters, combined to misfire on 10 of 12 attempts from deep. As Davis noted, if Embiid had been able to knock down two of his five first-half 3-pointers, maybe the game would have gone in a different direction.
In all five instances, no Net was within 6 feet of Embiid, per NBA.com. In total, the Sixers went 2-for-19 on 3-pointers that were classified as open or wide open.
Were the Nets just lucky to pull off the upset? Dudley thinks there are issues that run deeper, ones that could disprove the conventional wisdom that preceded this series.
“If you’ve watched us play all year, we’ve beaten Denver in Denver, at Houston, at Indiana and Milwaukee to clinch, so for us winning a road game is not big for us,” Dudley said. “If you look at their big four, the last time they played was against us (a 123-110 Sixers win on March 28). Chemistry matters. I want to see, when it’s the fourth quarter, crunch time, keeping it close, is that team willing to make the extra passes? You know Joel Embiid wants to shoot the ball. You know Jimmy Butler wants the ball. There’s only one basketball. It’s not the Warriors -- that’s a great passing team (and) shoot 3s. So, (the Sixers are) capable of beating you, capable of scoring in bunches, but can they make the extra passes?”