CAMDEN, N.J. — As the Philadelphia 76ers prepare for the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs, there are two key players on Brooklyn’s side to keep an eye on: Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton. Those two can give the Sixers a heap of trouble in the first round.
Bridges has averaged 26.1 points on shooting splits of 47.5/37.6/89.4 in 27 games so far with Brooklyn. While he has yet to be a lead option in the playoffs, his shooting can burn Philly badly. Now that he has become a go-to guy, the Sixers have to account for him individually, a challenge that he is ready for.
“I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s surprising,” Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey said of his breakout, “because on the team that he was on with the Phoenix Suns, he played his role. And they used to run plays for him down the stretch games. I remember last year when we played them here, they ran a couple of set ATOs for him down the stretch of the fourth quarter. So he’s always had game and now he just has to shoot more, has more volume, more confidence, more plays run for him, the offense kind of flowing through him. So, hats off to him.”
Maintaining his efficiency despite a massive uptick in responsibility is impressive for Bridges, especially considering he had little time to figure out how after being traded. Cutting off his passing, shooting and driving space will be key for the Sixers defense as they face a team eager to drive and kick to its array of 3-point snipers. Maxey said that the Sixers will have to “play him not just one-on-one but a five-man defense. He’s gotta see a crowd every single time that he catches the ball.”
Like Maxey, Doc Rivers knew that the Suns had him in a smaller role. But his ability to prove so quickly that he is a legitimate first option impressed the Sixers’ head coach.
“You see he’s shown a little bit of different things,” Rivers said. “I mean, he’s done all the things that he’s doing in Brooklyn that he did in Phoenix. He just didn’t have the opportunity to do that a lot. And he didn’t have the weight of doing it consistently. In Phoenix, he did it when they gave it to him. If he wasn’t going they could go away from him…Here, he has to do it every night.”
Bridges also serves as a key cog on defense around Claxton, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The 23-year-old center is never one to back down from confrontation and boasts rare versatility. He can cover ground quickly and block shots from anywhere. On the other end of the floor, he shot 70.5 percent from the field, leading the NBA. Over two-thirds of his shots came from inside three feet but efficiency like that is still not something to take lightly.
“Well, he’s great at the rim,” Rivers said. “He’s also one of the few bigs that can switch on guards and keep guards in front. You gotta get a shoulder in his chest — [against] all shot blockers, you have to do that. And then on offense, he rolls. He’s a great roller. We’ve got to try not to let him get behind our defense.”
The Nets may not have the star power that the Sixers do but that is hardly an excuse to take them lightly, as Rivers previously said. Defeating them in the first round starts by minimizing the impact that Brooklyn’s tenacious young stars can have.