Shorthanded Nets fall to 76ers in battle for first

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The 76ers want to finish the season atop the Eastern Conference. The Nets just want to finish healthy. Both of those goals showed in Wednesday’s lineups.

The already shorthanded Nets rested Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin, taking the court with a makeshift lineup and taking a 123-117 loss before 4,094 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Nets coach Steve Nash insisted it wasn’t strategy or gamesmanship. It wasn’t about trying to hide their hand against a potential playoff foe, but just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. Durant and Griffin sit on the tail ends of back-to-backs, and they sat, even though James Harden and LaMarcus Aldridge were both already out with injuries.

The Nets fell behind by 22 before rallying to get within three late in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Nets lost the top seed in the conference, but they stood fast in doing whatever is necessary to get — and hopefully keep — their roster healthy.

“Health is everything. It’d be great to have the No. 1 seed — I think it means a lot, it’s valuable — but not at the expense of losing players or prolonging our injury situation,” Nash said before the game. “So I think we have to be very careful and make sure that our guys get to the finish line as whole as possible.”

Considering the Nets are down to Kyrie Irving — who just made his return from a personal leave — as the only healthy point guard on the roster, that’s easy to understand.

Irving was left to carry an outsized burden, and finished with 37 points and nine assists, while DeAndre Jordan had 12 points and 14 rebounds. But the Sixers got a game-high 39 points and 13 rebounds from MVP candidate Joel Embiid, and 26 points and five boards from Tobias Harris.

The Nets fell a full game behind Philadelphia in the East, and also lost the season series 2-1 — losing the tiebreaker with it.

The game appeared over when the Nets trailed 112-90 after a Furkan Korkmaz 3-poiner with 8:21 left to play, but Nash’s team kept coming. With Irving sitting, a bench unit led by Nic Claxton and Alize Johnson got into the Sixers defensively, and the Nets went on a 21-2 run. A Johnson tip-in pulled them within 114-111 with 2:14 to play. They got within three twice more after that (the last time at 118-115 with 1:16 left), but they never got over the hump.

The Nets were chasing the 76ers most of the night. Trailing just 36-34 after a driving reverse by Joe Harris with 9:46 in the first half, the Nets coughed up seven unanswered points and the deficit swelled to nine.

They were still within 67-61 after a 3-pointer by Jeff Green (15 points) a minute into the second half. But that’s when they gave up an 18-8 run, including 11 points by Embiid. The Nets shot just 3-for-12 and missed all three from behind the arc in that span, while the Sixers’ MVP candidate went 5-for-9 by himself.

By the time Ben Simmons (17 points, nine assists) found Tobias Harris for a running dunk with 4:42 left in the third, it was 85-69, Philadelphia.

The Sixers’ lead reached 22 before the Nets rally that fell short.

Landry Shamet finished with 17 points and Bruce Brown had 14.

The Sixers’ Danny Green opined beforehand that the makeshift roster the Nets trotted out could just be tactical gamesmanship, to get an edge if the teams meet in the playoffs.

“You never get a real feel, it might be a strategic thing for them,” Green said. “I know in San Antonio, some games we didn’t play everybody so the teams don’t know how to guard us, how to play us. … For the future, this is the last time we play them for the rest of season, so we don’t know if we come to meeting them in the playoffs how we’ll match up … it’s hard to get a feel for a team when they’re never 100 percent.”

But Nash insisted the Nets weren’t trying to game that future. The lineup was just playing the hand they were dealt health-wise.

“Honestly we didn’t think about it that deeply at all,” Nash said. “I think when you start to really try to be cute, it backfires most of the time. So for us, it was just James isn’t going to play, we weren’t sure about Ky, LaMarcus has been ill. We don’t have a full squad anyways. So, it wasn’t a strategic; it was, this is what this is the availability we have. That’s simply what happened.”

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