By Norm Elrod
(CBS New York/CBS Local) — The Brooklyn Nets (42-40) might be the NBA’s biggest turnaround story this season. And after the securing the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, their season continues on Saturday. The Philadelphia 76ers (51-31), who they’ll meet in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, have been assured a postseason spot for awhile now. But only this week did they land the third seed and get matched up with the Nets. The Sixers, last season’s turnaround story, enjoyed their second consecutive 50-win season en route to their second consecutive third seed.
The teams split their four-game season series, with each team taking a close one on the road. The early-season Nets blowout win is a little less indicative of how these teams match up, given where it falls on the schedule. That said, any win over an obvious contender is welcome. The late-season 76ers win, with the Nets struggling to stay in the playoff hunt, raised some concerns.
For all the matchups within the overall matchup, the series may very well hinge on one particular pairing: Joel Embiid vs. Jarrett Allen. The success of each young center, against each other and within their team’s system, will affect which team moves on to the next round.
Jarrett Allen is not the main focus of the Nets offense, nor is he meant to be. He’s more of a scoring catalyst. But in his second year, Allen, who was drafted more as a project, has emerged as a force in and around the rim. He’s the pick part of the pick-and-roll the Nets like to run, helping to create for other scorers more than finding his own shot. His 10.9 points per game come in the paint and from the foul line, where he’s a 70.9% shooter. His stats in the season series against the Sixers are similar, even with limited minutes in two of the games.
On the other end of the court, Allen is a certified rim protector, averaging 1.5 blocks per game and altering many more shots. He’s also improved at directing those blocks to teammates, who can then push the ball in transition. So his defense serves as a catalyst for the team’s offense, a valuable assist for a team that likes to run. He pulls down 8.4 rebounds per game as well.
Allen played a more traditional post-up type of center in college at Texas. So he’s still growing into the NBA game, even if he already possesses the physical attributes (6’11”, 238 pounds, 7’5″ wingspan, not to mention agility and vertical) to excel at this level. And he has struggled against stronger centers like Joel Embiid, who anchors the 76ers offense.
Embiid has established himself as one of the NBA’s premiere scorers, in a 76ers offense that can generate points at every position. He averaged 27.5 points per game this season, along with 13.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Embiid has dominated the Nets as well, turning in four double-doubles in their four meetings, which translates to 30 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. And very few players in the NBA — Allen included — can slow him down on his way to the basket.
The 76ers center, an imposing presence on the court (7’0″, 249 pounds, 7’6″ wingspan), also dominates on the defensive end. And while he’s yet to win a Defensive Player of the Year award, it may just be a matter of time. He made the NBA’s All-Defensive team last season, and improved on many of his defensive stats this season. And even when he’s not collecting blocks and rebounds, he’s still affecting the flow of the game.
Embiid is questionable for the Nets-76ers series opener on Saturday, which is good news for the Nets. Philadelphia’s star center and leading scorer missed five of the season’s last seven games, though his absence didn’t raise any concerns, given his team’s lock on the playoffs. But it does change the matchup for game one and possibly going forward if Embiid’s sore knee prevents him from playing at full strength.
The 76ers, with a healthy Embiid, will be a handful for Allen and the Nets. Allen’s star may be on the rise, but he doesn’t have the experience (and the bulk) to contain Embiid. And all the potential in the world won’t slow the Sixers center when he gets going downhill to the basket. This Sixers team has legitimate dreams of an Eastern Conference Final. The Nets are probably a season away from a serious playoff run. However, should the Philadelphia center sit for longer than one game, this series becomes much more competitive. And who knows what can happen then?