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Sixers beat Nets in divisional showdown and remain in first place, but it felt like a moral defeat

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Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

All eyes were on the Philadelphia 76ers’ home matchup against the division rival Brooklyn Nets last night. The winner would get a one game lead in the standings, as well as the tie-breaker in the event both teams were to finish with the same record by season’s end. But the Nets were not at full strength. Of their “big three” (James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving) only Irving suited up. Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge (the latter of whom retired suddenly this morning because of an irregular heartbeat) weren’t in uniform either. The Sixers wound up winning their biggest game of the season, and as of now, home court goes through South Philly, where Doc Rivers’ team has been amazing. They’re 21-5 this year and 52-9 at home dating back to last season. They’ll enjoy a massive home court advantage if they can sustain it over the next 17 games. But if there is such thing as a moral victory in defeat, then perhaps there is such a thing as a moral defeat in victory. That’s sort of how it felt last night.

The first quarter was a bit of a slug fest. The Sixers failed to gain separation as Kyrie plus role players applied relentless pressure. Jeff Green, who somehow seems to always hurt the Sixers, started off shooting the ball well. He wound up with 15 points. Former Sixer Landry Shamet played a terrific game in his elevated role. Shamet the former Shocker wound up dropping 17 points on just 10 field goal attempts, knocking down 8-9 free throws. He looked very much like the draft day steal the Sixers sniffed out a few years ago (as did Shake Milton, selected by the team that same year).

It wasn’t until the second quarter where the Sixers began to out-physical Brooklyn. The Sixers opened an 11 point lead midway through the second period, punctuated with this rim rocker by Joel Embiid.

Embiid was in MVP form last night, and he finished with a ridiculous 39 points, 2 blocks, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 3-6 from 3, and 10-11 from the line. What is very clear is that the Nets have no sustainable way to defend the Sixers’ MVP candidate.

But as you can hear in the tweet posted above, Mike Breen and Doris Burke on the ESPN broadcast pointed out that Embiid appeared to tweak his left knee on the landing from that pull up he did on the rim. Joel did a bit of “wincing” and “walking gingerly” through the rest of the first half. He would appear to move a bit better after the break, although at one point later in the game would take a trip to the locker room.

Perhaps he is fine. Perhaps he was able to power through in a big moment on adrenaline but the knee (which he hyperextended and bone-bruised landing after a huge dunk back in mid March) will bother him more today than it did yesterday. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the injury report.

There was another point in a game against the Pelicans last weekend (where Embiid looked very much not his usual MVP self, settling for a bevy of mid range shots which he wasn’t knocking down) that led to some wincing.

Indeed, after that loss in New Orleans we heard the following:

But that wound up OK, as he demolished the tanking Thunder the next day and then the Mavericks on Monday. He even bought himself some old fashioned load management, running up the score and getting to sit out the end of those games.

And it appeared that might be the case again. With 1:21 to go in the third quarter last night Mike Scott entered the game for Embiid. The Sixers reserves took an 11 point lead and doubled it by the time there was 8:21 remaining in the 4th. It looked as if Embiid would get to rest that knee until the team would host the Clips tomorrow night.

But the Nets reserves went ballistic. With Irving on the bench players like Alize Johnson, Bruce Brown, Nicolas Claxton, Landry Shamet, and former Sixer, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot went on a 21-2 run to cut the ballgame to 3! It was really ugly.

Rivers was forced to bring Embiid and Simmons back in, but he didn’t feel comfortable allowing Tobias Harris to continue playing because he too appeared to spend some of the game favoring a knee.

And so as you know there was a happy (or at least a relief of an) ending. The Sixers closed the game out. They wound up with their biggest win of the season.

But they squeaked by a Nets team that didn’t have James Harden, Kevin Durant, or Blake Griffin in uniform, that never did bring Kyrie Irving back into a 3 point ballgame with over two minutes remaining, and that didn’t foul on purpose down 6 with about 17 seconds to go.

If one had to speculate on the curious coaching, one might postulate that Irving, who occasionally takes games off for rest/injury management, was a bit sore, or that Coach Nash simply didn’t feel it a risk worth taking to ask him to come in cold from having sat for so long and win a ball game on the road. But one thing seems clear. The Nets did not appear to prioritize winning the game last night. They clearly believe that if they’re fully healthy by the playoffs, they can win in any gym. And last night probably did little to change their minds.

Here’s a weird it possible that that we’ll look back on this Nets team as one of the greatest teams ever assembled, even though they’ll have only logged a small handful of regular season games together? The load management dynasty?

Anyway, the Sixers are 2 games and 2 wins in to their measuring stick 7 game stretch. They’re in a better spot than anyone predicted before the year. But with Dwight Howard dealing with a knee, Danny Green dealing with a hip, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid both clearly favoring their knees at times, after allowing a 21-2 run by the Nets’ full reserve unit at home...if there is such thing as a moral defeat, last night sure felt like one. I assume that the Nets in defeat were in much better spirits than the Sixers as victors in their respective locker rooms after the game.

This season started not long after last season, and it is jam packed with games. It feels like the Sixers need a week off, and yet they’ll be hosting the Clippers tomorrow night, who have rattled off 15 wins in their last 17 games, many without one of Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Last night they got a big win without either, keeping pace with the division leading Phoenix Suns. And after Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets devastating knee injury, the Clips sure do appear Western Conference favorites.

Hopefully the Sixers can spend today in a big ole ice bath together singing “Here they come.” The winner of these finals may very well be the last men standing.