Sometime in the third quarter, as the Philadelphia 76ers rained down 3-pointers like mortar shots and Ben Simmons, a giant point guard possessed of preternatural passing ability and a bricklayer’s touch, carved through the Nets, a thought occurred:

This was not the playoff homecoming of the Nets’ dreams.

The Nets tried but never really contended Thursday night. The men from Philadelphia simply had too much talent and too many big bodies on their way to a 2-1 first-round series lead, and that was a shame. Saddled with the worst attendance in the N.B.A. this season, Barclays Center in Brooklyn was packed to the gills with fans waving towels and hooting and yelling. The joint was packed and joyfully rocking.

The Nets are a pretty good pro hoops team in a city where terrible often rules the roost. Their coach, Kenny Atkinson, a likable and intelligent basketball lifer, took over a team that was expected to dwell in the cellar and won more games, 42, than it lost, 40, this season.

That was in contrast to the disaster masquerading as a basketball team at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks’ management team crafted a grotesquely bad team that finished 17-65. (Losing no longer impresses because the Knicks have posted losing records in 15 of the last 18 years.) In a sign that God may have a strange sense of humor, those same Knicks are widely rumored to be a favorite to gain the services of the brilliant forward Kevin Durant, who can become a free agent this summer.

But enough about that other New York team.

After falling into a deep ditch under previous management, the Brooklyn Nets have executed a slow, steady rebuild, instilling discipline and a sense of Nets basketball, which is to say a fluid, slashing style that relies on small forwards and guards bolstered by lean, swift centers who block shots and rebound and run. Their general manager, Sean Marks, a former San Antonio Spurs assistant and executive, has picked up talented role players much as a fishmonger sorts through a barrel and plucks out tasty sea bass.

The Nets have a fine quartet of guards and small forwards, D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert, creative players all, who can probe and find seams in defenses and stroke jump shots.

So this game on Thursday offered a chance to draw the measure of a Nets team rising more quickly than expected and of a Sixers team that hopes to compete for a championship. On that last point I walked away nursing doubts.

The Sixers for six years were an experimental laboratory, their former general manager Sam Hinkie occupying a reputational land between supposed genius and madman. They lost intentionally and insistently, and accumulated top draft picks, not the least the 6-foot-10 point guard Simmons and the splendidly talented big man Joel Embiid. Sixers ownership eventually discarded Hinkie. But that team now is expected to contend, and the current general manager made a series of trades toward that end this season.

Yet a week into playoff season, the engine of that 76ers machine is coughing. Embiid has come up with a chronically sore knee. That is a problem for any athlete, much less a 7-foot, 270-pound center. The assumption Thursday night was that he would play, an impression reinforced when Embiid took the court an hour before the game and shot around. He shot fadeaways and spun like a dervish and put up graceful hook shots.

Then minutes before tipoff, the 76ers’ coaches shook their heads. Nope, his knee was too sore. Embiid was sitting. That left the big man in a bad mood. Moments before the tip, as teammates walked over to dap him up and slap his back, Embiid could barely look at them or the court.

Simmons is no less talented, and perhaps more baffling. He is a brilliant athlete with stunning vision and dribbling ability. When he breaks swiftly into the open court, his passing takes on a sleight-of-hand quality, so quick that you notice the ball only as it lands in the hands of a teammate.

Alas, his shooting edges toward disastrous, and his confidence in it is sodden. Rather than put his hand under the ball, he puts it off to the side, his left elbow sticking out like a chicken wing. He practices his shooting before games with often unsightly results. On Thursday evening, he stood in the corner and took pass after pass from an assistant coach and shot and shot. He made, by my count, five baskets in 15 attempts. Then he took 3-point shots from the shoulder of the key, going 1 for 6.

You wanted to cover your eyes and suggest that maybe he should stick to layups. Yet by shooting layups and hook shots and dunks, he finished the game with 31 points and 9 assists.

He is the best fundamentally unsound player in the N.B.A. And you wonder how this still unformed 22-year-old star and a gimpy-knee center can stumble into the N.B.A. finals.

In a strange way, on this night, Embiid’s absence liberated his teammates. They shot 40 percent from 3-point range to the Nets’ 20 percent, and they outrebounded them, too.

If the 76ers have a playoff advantage, it may reside with their veteran talent, in particular Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick. During a Nets run late in the third quarter, Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown called a timeout and drew up a play. Then you saw Redick stand up and start talking and pointing. Then Butler leaned in and interjected. Brown fell silent, then nodded in agreement. Fine, he said, we’ll run it differently.

As they walked out onto the court after the timeout, Butler and Redick kept talking, resembling two professors discussing a knotty physics problem. “That was pros talking to pros,” Brown said later.

The Nets are a young crew, not unduly burdened by egos and attitude. But they are not yet at a pros-talking-to-pros level. They are a promising troupe still in search of a leading man.

 

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