The on-court battle between the two teams with the most off-court drama this past offseason did not disappoint and was just as entertaining.
The Brooklyn Nets trailed for the first 47 minutes of the match and by as much as 14 points before stealing a 114-109 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center.
11-time NBA All-Star Kevin Durant was brilliant for the second consecutive game and led the Nets to their first victory of the season with 29 points, 15 rebounds, and 12 assists. His running mate James Harden, still clearly playing his way into shape from a hamstring injury that he suffered in last year’s postseason, added 20 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, and two steals.
Meanwhile, Patty Mills continued his hot start to the season with 11 points, three three-pointers, two rebounds, two assists, a steal, and no turnovers in 30 minutes. The Australian guard has not missed a three in 10 attempts over their first two games this year and he has thrived in the expanded role that he has had to take in the absence of the still unvaccinated Kyrie Irving.
The game-changer for Brooklyn though was their reserve center LaMarcus Aldridge. Back on the team following an abrupt retirement last April due to a heart condition that has now been deemed manageable, the 16-year veteran bounced back from a one-point debut with 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting and five rebounds in only 22 minutes.
It was a vintage performance from the seven-time NBA All-Star as he hit a couple of mid range jumpers and expertly positioned himself around the basket for easy lay-ups off drop passes. Aldridge gave the Nets their first taste of the lead, 109-108, with 48 seconds left in the contest as Harden drew the defense and found him for an easy shot under the hoop that eventually became a three-point play.
The size of the 6’11, 250-pound Aldridge was also crucial in limiting Philadelphia star Joel Embiid down the stretch. Embiid did not score and took only three field goal attempts in the four fourth quarter minutes that he played.
He was initially tagged as questionable for the game due to knee soreness and was clearly bothered by it all throughout the 29 total minutes that he was on the floor. However, he still managed to churn out 19 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, and four blocks.
Now in his sixth playing year in the league, Embiid is no longer as injury-prone as he was at the beginning of his career, but the developments with his knee this early in the season are concerning. With Ben Simmons’ tumultuous stand-off with the team still without an end in sight, the Sixers will need Embiid fully healthy and dominant if they want to contend in the Eastern Conference.
Tobias Harris and Seth Curry stepped up for Philadelphia and led them with 23 points apiece while Tyrese Maxey drew another start in place of Simmons and scored 15 points.
As much as it was a character-building win for this resilient Brooklyn team, it was also a blown opportunity for the Sixers. Head coach Doc Rivers had two opportunities with less than two minutes in the game to use his challenge on a pair of controversial calls that went in the Nets’ favor that clearly should have gone to Philadelphia instead.
Another curiosity was the ever-infamous Danny Green who missed three three-pointers, two of which were air-balls, over a 99-second span with around three minutes remaining. The Sixers were still leading and trying to hold off the Nets’ rally when Green took the ill-fated shots.
The three-time NBA champion has made countless crucial three-pointers over his lengthy career though now no spring chicken at the age of 34 and following this disastrous stretch, the clamor for him to take a lesser role in favor of defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle or the sharpshooting Furkan Korkmaz will only grow louder.
These two teams will meet three more times this season and it will be interesting to see who takes the floor for them in their next game on December 17 especially when taking into consideration the ever-peculiar situations of Irving and Simmons.
Regardless of whether those two even play this season, the Nets and Sixers are still expected to figure prominently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and may very well meet in a seven-game series come the postseason.