NEW YORK — After two consecutive games on the losing end the Brooklyn Nets were bound to make some changes. The 76ers figured as much heading into Game 4.
Despite Brooklyn’s attempt to inject a different kind of energy and scoring into its starting lineup, the Sixers beat the Nets, 112-108, at the Barclays Center on Saturday to take a 3-1 series lead.
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Nets coach Kenny Atkinson replaced DeMarre Carroll with Caris LeVert, and Rodions Kurucs with Jared Dudley. Atkinson hoped the change in the rotation would get LeVert more involved in the offense early, demand more of the Sixers on the defensive side, and give the Nets a stronger body to use on Ben Simmons, at times, in the post.
“I just felt like it was time to change,” Atkinson said. “I thought it helped us.”
To the Nets’ credit, the Sixers were out of sorts in the first quarter, coughing up multiple turnovers and getting lost on defensive assignments while LeVert scored 11 of his team-high 25 points.
From the Sixers perspective, the mistakes were more their own rather than born of anything the Nets did.
“The reshuffling of the starting lineup, I didn’t feel like it really caught us off guard or affected us,” Brett Brown said. “I understand it and respect them trying to change some stuff, but how it impacted us, I thought, was marginal.”
The sleepless nights, endless scouting, poring over strategies and options, and everything else that goes into planning for a playoff matchup is what the coaches look forward to all year. The same can be said for the chess match between the Nets and Sixers. Brown and Atkinson love the battle.
Though for Atkinson, in his first, playoff series as a head coach, he’s finding it more difficult than he expected.
“I didn’t realize there was such a big difference [between the regular season and postseason],” he said. “Just understanding the balance of making adjustments and also understanding what we do well.”
LeVert has been playing great for the Nets and he’s a part of nearly everything the team does well, so it seemed like a no-brainer to put him in the starting lineup.
For the series, LeVert has been the Nets second-highest scorer with 21.8 points per game just behind D’Angelo Russell’s 22.3 points through four games. Additionally, from players in the Nets’ regular rotation, LeVert has been the most reliable three-point shooter at 47.8 percent.
“I just try to be aggressive whether I’m starting or coming off the bench, and I felt like we matched up pretty well with them tonight," LeVert said. “Obviously some things happened with Jared. I feel like we had to protect ourselves out there, and we support him in what he did.”
Some things definitely happened. The scuffle that broke out with 7 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third quarter resulted in Dudley, a player the Nets heavily rely on, and Jimmy Butler, the defender who opened up the game guarding LeVert, both ejected.
Joel Embiid sensed that it was time for him to take the game into his hands. From the time of the ejections to the end of the game the Sixers outscored the Nets, 51-39, with Embiid getting 18 of his 31 points.
Embiid’s late takeover and Mike Scott’s dagger three near the end of the game gave the Sixers what they needed to escape. But, heading into Game 5, with a chance to close out the series at home, the Sixers will need to find a way to slow down LeVert, who will continue to be a focal point of the Nets’ offense.
“The kid can play, that’s for damn sure,” Butler said. “He’s a really talented basketball player and a key part to what they do. ... If they start him next game too, I guess we’ve got to lock in on him.”