Nets suffer ugly Game 3 loss to 76ers, resurgent Ben Simmons

The Nets rolled down the New Jersey Turnpike for their first-round playoff opener and snatched home-court advantage from Philadelphia. Thursday in Brooklyn, they gave it right back.

In their first home playoff game in four years, the Nets suffered a 131-115 Game 3 loss to the Sixers before a sellout crowd of 17,732 at Barclays Center. And they lost the home-court advantage they had worked so hard to earn last Saturday.

“It’s four years since we’ve had a playoff game here, so it’s a big deal. Our guys are excited,” coach Kenny Atkinson said before the game. “We’ve already gotten our feet wet. We’re going to have a great crowd out there, I’m sure Philly’s going to bring their section of the crowd, so it should be interesting, should be a fun night for everybody.”

Less so for the Nets.

D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert each had 26 points, with LeVert scoring the most by a Nets’ reserve in a playoff game. But the Nets still trail the series 2-1 going into Saturday’s Game 4, and wasted a golden opportunity.

The Nets had caught a huge break when Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid was ruled out with a sore knee. But it’s a break they weren’t good enough to take advantage of. Embiid had tormented the Nets for 30 points and 14.3 rebounds per game this season, but the 76ers still had more than enough Thursday.

With Embiid out, Tobias Harris was no longer relegated to fourth-option status, and the pending free agent showed exactly why he’s expected to be high atop the Nets’ wish list come July. The Long Island native poured in 16 of his 29 points in the first half.

“He’s an elite human being, and he’s smart,” 76ers coach Brett Brown had said of Harris. “When you have Joel, Ben [Simmons], Jimmy [Butler] and JJ [Redick], there are mouths to feed, so to speak. Because he’s inherently selfless, his mindset to put his thumbprint all over a game and just grab it is challenged. In the month-and-a-half that I’ve had him, they’ve played 11 games [together].”

Simmons had a game-high 31 points on efficient 11-of-13 shooting. And after the Nets had put the clamps on Redick in the Game 1 win, they couldn’t keep up with him Thursday. They tried top-locking him, but he got great screens from Boban Marjanovic en route to 26 points.

“If you don’t bring the physicality, and I think our guys understand, if you don’t bring the physicality in the playoffs it’s just tough,” Atkinson had warned. “So we’ve got to do what we do. We’ve got to raise our physicality and the energy level, no doubt about it. But we do have to stick to our identity.”

The Nets trailed for most of the night. After taking an early 9-4 lead, they immediately surrendered a 25-10 run they spent the entire evening trying — and failing — to recover from.

They fell behind by double-digits, and it was still 34-24 early in the second quarter when LeVert — scoreless to that point — started to percolate. He scored the Nets’ next 14 points to personally drag them within two at 40-38.

They trailed 65-59 at intermission, still in the game solely because of LeVert’s 19 points at the break. It was not only the highest-scoring half of his career, but all his points came in the second quarter.

The Nets dug themselves an 18-point hole in the third. They fell behind 94-76 on Redick’s free throws with 2:53 left in the period.
Still trailing 97-81 after Redick’s 3 with 1:17 left, they closed the third with nine straight points. LeVert stole the ball from Simmons and sprinted in for a finger roll with 10 seconds left, and they forced Redick to step out of bounds with two seconds left for a big stop.

The Nets opened the fourth down by seven, and Russell’s 3 pulled them within 105-99 with 8:36 to play. But that’s as close as they got.

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