— Christopher Kline
In the playoffs, it’s hard to underrate straight talent. Barring injury, the Sixers simply have the two best players on the floor. Joel Embiid has been playing the best basketball of anybody in the league for a couple months now. Harden, for all his faults, is a battle-tested star who spent most of the season looking like a top-10 MVP candidate in his own right.
The Sixers have the halfcourt scoring advantage on the strength of Embiid and Harden alone. That two-man game has developed significantly since last postseason’s flameout. Embiid is picking apart defenses from the top of the key, Harden can get the ball wherever he wants coming off the screen, and Philly has enough shooting to keep the Nets spaced out.
Brooklyn won’t roll over. The myriad long wings and switchable defenders on that roster — most notably All-Defense candidate Nic Claxton at center — are built to give Harden trouble, especially if he’s not 100 percent healthy. Claxton loses the weight battle in the post, but he’s an aggressive and physical defender who can find other ways to bother Embiid without out-muscling him. Plus, Mikal Bridges has turned into the kind of mid-range assassin who generally lights up Philly’s defense. Spencer Dinwiddie pressures the paint, Cam Johnson and company can splash a lot of 3s, and Claxton’s athleticism in space will keep Embiid occupied on defense.
All that said, the Sixers also have P.J. Tucker and De’Anthony Melton to throw at Bridges, a first-time No. 1 option who has never been “the guy” at this level. Dinwiddie and Claxton are cool, but they aren’t exactly series-winners. Philly has the talent advantage, a considerably better halfcourt offense, and a top-8 defender to hold it all together. Barring injuries or unforced blunders (which you can never count out with this group…), it should be a fairly simple Sixers victory.
Final prediction: Sixers in 5