The Brooklyn Nets were a pleasant surprise this season. Expected to finish out of the playoffs, Brooklyn managed a 14-game win improvement from the previous season and finished 42-40, earning the sixth seed in the East.
In their first playoff appearance in four years, the Nets will head down the New Jersey Turnpike to face the 51-31 Philadelphia 76ers. In the regular season, the Nets faced the Sixers in four games and split the season series 2-2. Just one of these games - a 123-110 Sixers win on March 28 - has featured Philadelphia's fully updated roster following the Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in-season trades.
Can the upstart Nets make some noise in the playoffs? Here are some key factors to the Nets' first round playoff matchup.
Point Guard: D'Angelo Russell vs. Ben Simmons
Shooting Guard: Joe Harris vs. J.J. Redick
Small Forward: Rodions Kurucs vs. Jimmy Butler
Power Forward: DeMarre Carroll vs. Tobias Harris
Center: Jarrett Allen vs. Joel Embiid
Is Joel Embiid in or out?
A sore left knee and load management has caused Embiid to miss 14 of the past 24 games since the All-Star break. This includes five of Philadelphia's final seven games. Sixers general manager Elton Brand made ominous comments alluding to the possibility of Embiid not being prepared to play in Game One. The Nets could find themselves in a playoff matchup against Philadelphia without their best player.
Playoff experience favors Philadelphia
The 76ers have an advantage in playoff experience, as key players in Embiid and Simmons gained two rounds worth last year. Add in Butler's playoffs in Chicago and Minnesota, and the Sixers look to be the more experienced team.
Seven Nets have zero playoff experience, while two players - Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie - enjoyed the wonders of garbage time minutes in playoff appearances for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons respectively. The Nets will rely heavily on the experiences of veterans Carroll, Jared Dudley and Ed Davis. All three players have played on teams that made trips to the conference finals.
Can D'Angelo Russell attack Philadelphia's size?
Russell had a wonderful season, making his first All-Star team while leading the Nets in scoring and assists. He has found his game, but he'll be matched up with a bigger player on both ends of the court. Philadelphia has guarded Russell (6-foot-5) in the regular season with either Butler (6-foot-8) or Simmons (6-foot-10).
On the defensive end, Russell defended Butler for much of the previous meeting on March 28. Will the 76ers look to exploit the size mismatch through post ups for Butler? It will be something to watch in the series.
Coming of age for Jarrett Allen
A key in Brooklyn's growth from cellar dweller to playoff contender has been the growth of the young big man in Allen. In his second season, Allen has become one of the best rim protectors in the league, and has also started to develop offensive skills to complement his defensive improvement.
Though Allen has been effective on defense, matching up with Embiid will be a tough task. Embiid is an effective post player, using his size and strength to bowl over opposing defenders. Plus Embiid's offensive skill set is multi-faceted with his ability to attack from the perimeter.
Allen will be tasked with slowing down Embiid, while also trying to stay out of foul trouble.
The battle of the benches
The Nets were second in total scoring from the bench (47.8 points per game), finishing just behind the Los Angeles Clippers for first. Dinwiddie leads the charge for the Nets' reserves, and was effective against the 76ers in the regular season, averaging 23.8 points in four games.
After making two in-season trades, Philadelphia essentially sacrificed bench depth to strengthen their core. They finished with the fourth lowest total in points off the bench. However, Philadelphia makes up for it by staggering minutes for their four stars. Expect at least two of the foursome of Embiid, Simmons, Butler, and Harris to be on the court at all times.
Can the Nets attack the paint?
The Nets finished the regular season tied for second in drives per game (53.3). That fueled their ability to collapse the defense and find open perimeter shooters in their drive-and-kick offense. However, Philadelphia defends the paint well, owning the fifth-best defensive field goal percentage at shots from less than six feet in (60.4 percent).
Seven-footers Embiid and Boban Marjanovic are major deterrents at the rim, and in Philadelphia's defensive schemes, both big men will sacrifice long twos - and the occasional three - in favor of clamping down inside.