Ben Simmons had to go there.
You kind of knew someone eventually would sooner or later. But you just didn’t think it would be one of the 76ers leading up to their Wednesday game with the Brooklyn Nets at the Wells Fargo Center.
“Obviously, Brooklyn has a lot of talent,” Simmons said following the Sixers’ 113-95 road win over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday. “But at the end of the day, there’s only one ball, and you got to play defense, too.
“So we got to come into the game prepared, mentally.”
The three-time All-Star is right about all of that. As loaded with talent as the Nets are, there’s only one basketball. Plus, Brooklyn is going to need some stops on the defensive end.
And the Sixers must come in prepared mentally for Wednesday’s Eastern Conference first-place showdown. They are tied with the Nets for first place at 37-17 with 18 regular-season games remaining. This contest will be their third and final meeting, with the squads having split the first two encounters.
A victory Wednesday would enable the Sixers to control their own destiny. The winner of the game would hold the tiebreaker and get the higher playoff seed if they and the Nets complete the regular season with the same record.
In regard to the Nets’ talent, they boast the league’s most formidable Big Three in 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant, 2018 MVP James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. They acquired Harden from the Houston Rockets in a four-team trade Jan. 13.
Brooklyn also later added Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge in the buyout market. As a result, the Nets have six players with multiple All-NBA selections: Durant, Irving, Harden, Griffin, Aldridge, and DeAndre Jordan. With all that firepower, Brooklyn led the league in field-goal shooting (49.3%) through Monday. The Nets were also second in the league in scoring (118.7 points per game) and third in three-point shooting (39.0%).
But Brooklyn struggles on defense.
The Nets were 24th in the league in scoring defense at 114.4 points per game. They were 13th in opposing team’s field goal shooting at 46.3%.
But don’t be surprised if the Nets play without their full roster.
Aldridge (illness), Harden (right hamstring strain), Irving (personal reasons), Spencer Dinwiddie (torn ACL in right knee) and reserve Tyler Johnson (right knee soreness) all missed Brooklyn’s 127-97 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday. Dinwiddie has only played in the first three games.
Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said the team will assess things with Durant Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before a decision is made about his status against the Sixers. Tuesday marked his third game back after missing 23 games due to suffering a right hamstring strain on Feb. 13.
Nash said Irving’s availability against the Sixers is still to be determined. In regard to Harden, the Nets announced on April 6 that he would be sidelined at least 10 days. Wednesday marks the ninth day.
The Nets have been cautious with injuries and have rested players all season for what is expected to be a long postseason run. Brooklyn has played only seven games in which Irving, Harden, and Durant were all available.
Durant and Irving were among a few Brooklyn players who didn’t play in the first two meetings with the Sixers.
Despite that, Brooklyn won 122-109 at the Barclays Center on Jan. 7. The Sixers then beat the undermanned Nets, 124-108, at the Wells Fargo Center on Feb. 6.
Tuesday’s victory over Minnesota was the Nets’ 23rd in 29 games since that setback. Meanwhile, the Sixers have won 20 of 30 games since the teams’ last meeting
Wednesday’s matchup could have huge postseason implications regardless of who plays.
“They’ve been playing well,” Sixers center Joel Embiid said. “We’ve been playing well. We’ve been winning games. They’ve been winning games. No one seemed to want to lose any game, so you never know.
“We might have the same record at the end of the season. so having that tiebreaker is important for us. We want the No. 1 seed.”