The Brooklyn Nets put the Philadelphia 76ers to the sword on Saturday with a 111-102 Game 1 win decided largely by Brooklyn’s standout bench unit and the 76ers nonexistent one. Kenny Atkinson got a Nets playoff-record 58 points from his reserves, many of them coming in a late-quarter surge that gave his team a 31-22 lead to end the first.
Philly made some mini-runs to cut that initial deficit, but Brooklyn always responded. The nine-point lead set the tone for the game, and ultimately decided it.
Veteran forward Jared Dudley scored just four of Brooklyn’s 58 bench points. He didn’t make a single field goal, and he finished that sparkplug first quarter with 0 points, 0 rebounds, and 1 assist. But he also finished the quarter a plus-10, and that basically described his Game 1 – a role-playing masterclass that positioned his younger, more explosive teammates for success.
The 33-year-old came into the game midway through the first and immediately started guarding near-max talent Tobias Harris. That should not be a good matchup for the 6’7” Dudley, who is giving up an inch or two in height and several seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Harris didn’t get much. He attempted just two midrange jumpers – a make and a miss – both of which Brooklyn defended well enough because Dudley, while not totally attached to the Philly man, fought back to switch position and used his heft to box out the screener.
That strength proved to be a critical asset for Atkinson. He felt comfortable deploying Dudley at the 5, even against behemoths like Boban Marjanovic, and the Boston College alum repaid his coach’s faith. Philly went after him in the post and got stonewalled.
Dudley keeps his hands high, plays his angles well, and has a sturdy base. He allowed just 0.86 points per possession on post-ups this season, substantially better than the Nets’ actual centers Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis. Joel Embiid may be a tough matchup for him, but anyone else will have a tough time getting easy buckets down low.
Provided the rest of the team rebounds well enough around him, the 12-year pro can even hold up as a rim protector. He doesn’t have the quickest hands, but he puts them in the right place, knowing when to take away passing lanes…
…and when to wall up.
Brooklyn sported a stingy 91.8 defensive rating with Dudley in the game altogether. Some of that is the Sixers’ general impotence, but much of it was Brooklyn’s smart, swarming bench defense.
That Dudley-at-the-5 look, even when a bit wobblier on D, pays dividends at the other end. As a career 39.2 percent shooter from three – the only shooting big man on the Nets roster – he can draw opposing bigs out of the paint and crack open crevasses for his teammates.
Embiid is preoccupied with the perimeter threat Dudley poses, here. He’s so jumpy, in fact, that he falls for Caris LeVert’s ball fake and entirely evacuates the paint.
When the Sixers tried to downsize themselves, their more perimeter-oriented bigs stuck even tighter to the Brooklyn vet, leaving the lane bare for easy drives and finishes.
Dudley didn’t make any threes during the Saturday matinee – at forward or center – but it didn’t matter. Philly gravitated toward him, opening lanes for his teammates. And on hard closeouts, he just lumbered into the paint himself. Three of his four assists came off of straight-line drives to the hoop after he received the ball beyond the three-point line.
The other assist? A classic Dudley play. He saw a possession going nowhere, set a flare screen to create space for LeVert, then intelligently cut into the paint after Mike Scott reacted to his screen.
Once again, he sensed what his team needed, and did it. He was the connective tissue of Brooklyn’s Game 1 upset.
Dudley boxes out on every rebound, keeps his hands active on defense, sets bruising screens, knows his next move before receiving the ball, and sprints down the court both ways. He is a high-school basketball coach’s dream.
But his willingness to do the little things has also kept him relevant at the NBA level, where he’s making an impact in the playoffs in his 12th damn season. He was a plus-17 in 27 minutes.
The Sixers’ bench is B-A-D bad, and Dudley might struggle against more dynamic playoff units. But it’s not like he didn’t show out against Philly’s heavy hitters, too. And as big-time underdogs in this series, this is the only opponent the Nets need to worry about for now.
Philly’s thin rotation is vulnerable, and Dudley is at Brooklyn’s service, willing to do whatever is needed to win.