April 23, 2012

The Nets and the Sixers were playing for very different things on Monday. The Sixers' motivation was fairly straightforward: Win in New Jersey and assure yourself a playoff spot. But for the Nets, things were more bittersweet. This was, after all, their final home game before moving to Brooklyn, the final episode in their long, complicated relationship with the people of New Jersey. But as shown by Philadelphia's 105-87 victory, when it comes to winning basketball games, playoff-level focus is more effective than nostalgia.

• The result of this game could perhaps have been predicted based on one crucial stat: The Sixers boast the league's third-best defense, allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions. The Nets' defense? Not so great. They're in a heated race for the 28th spot and give up 106.8 points per 100 possessions, an incredible number given the league-wide offensive swoon this season.

You could see this play out on the floor. The Sixers switched and hedged with energy and aggression. They rotated and recovered decisively. They positioned themselves in passing lanes, forcing the Nets into stagnant, isolation-heavy possessions. Most important, they maintained aggressive help position on every New Jersey drive. Whenever a Nets guard attempted to penetrate the paint, he faced no fewer than two defenders.

Suffice it to say, though the Nets played with great second-half energy, they did not do these things. The result: The Sixers made 53.8 percent of their field goals, while the Nets hit just 43.1 percent.

• The Sixers' 13-0 first-quarter run was fueled by accurate shooting, a healthy transition game and some serious defensive intensity. After that, though, it seemed that they were content to while away the rest of the game, trading baskets, banking on the Nets' lukewarm effort and sitting on their 10-point lead en route to an easy playoff berth.

One could understand why they might make that assumption. After all, the Nets were 9-23 at home coming into this game. And it often seemed that their sparse crowds had found themselves in the wrong building, waiting for a more exciting spectacle while a slightly distracting basketball game took place.

But there was real energy in the building during the Nets' 13-2 third-quarter run. During that time, the home team played with uncharacteristic defensive intensity; it almost seemed like it might have a chance to pull out the win. But in the end, the Sixers' focus, defensive discipline and, above all, sheer advantage in talent won out.

• The Nets have been afflicted with injuries and roster instability this season, allowing D-League stars Sundiata Gaines, Armon Johnson and Gerald Green to log significant playing time in the latter stages of the season. But the most intriguing of their young gunners has to be MarShon Brooks. Brooks plays with the ragged energy of the free-styling, high-volume collegiate scorer that he was just a year ago at Providence. He can hit improbable fading jumpers; he slices through driving lanes and throws himself at the rim.

He does other stuff too, though, like walking the ball up the floor, indecisively probing the defense and effectively dribbling out the shot clock. Brooks hit six of his 14 shots, but things like this played right into the Sixers' hands. By slowing the Nets' offense to a crawl and failing to engender smooth, crisp ball movement, Brooks helped turn his team's sets into a series of time-consuming one-on-one battles, which is exactly what Philadelphia wanted.

Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner personally shut down the Nets' energized third-quarter spurt by hitting a series of contested jumpers. Young was particularly impressive. He ran the floor, scrapped for rebounds, made good use of his impressive length and athleticism on defense and simply hit some shots. The two combined to make 10 out of 11 shots in the second half and were responsible for a large portion of the Sixers' advantage in offensive efficiency.

• In Andre Iguodala and Gerald Wallace, this game featured two of the game's most soulful players, the beating hearts of their respective teams. Neither player is a terribly great shooter; both rely on incredible displays of energy and endurance and desire, not to mention staggering athleticism. Iggy had the early advantage in their one-on-one matchup, hitting two threes over Wallace's outstretched arm and spearheading the Sixers' running game during their big first-quarter surge.

In the end, though, Iguodala's statistical advantage (he had 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting, seven boards and nine assists, while Wallace went for 11, six and four) was less a product of his superiority as a player and more of his playing in a situation in which his talents are appreciated. It's sad to see Wallace's toiling away, playing such vivid defense, attacking the basket with such verve, on a team as callow and mercurial as these Nets.

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