Only one Eastern Conference team is within one victory of advancing to the second round of the 2018 NBA playoffs. It’s not the Toronto Raptors, who won 59 games to earn the conference’s top seed. It’s not the Cleveland Cavaliers, employers of the best player on the planet and the East’s NBA Finals representative three years running. Nope: it’s the team that, while Toronto and Cleveland have been vying for conference supremacy over the past few years, was mired in the misery of one of the most defeat-centric stretches in NBA history.
The Philadelphia 76ers have a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series against the Miami Heat. After getting punched in the mouth in Game 2 by a tough, physical Heat team, led by a turn-back-the-clock performance by Dwyane Wade, the young Sixers bounced back with two impressive victories in Miami — one keyed by the return of All-Star center Joel Embiid, and the other fueled by Rookie of the Year hopeful Ben Simmons and some big late-game plays by veteran J.J. Redick — to give themselves the chance to eliminate Erik Spoelstra’s club back in the friendly confines of Wells Fargo Center in Tuesday’s Game 5.
It’s been an impressive start to the postseason careers of Simmons, Embiid and fellow first-timer Dario Saric, the bumper crop of young difference-makers the Sixers plucked during their years at the bottom of the standings and the top of the NBA draft. And to hear Philly’s famously masked man tell it, this is only the beginning — not just in years to come, but in the present tense, too.
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) April 23, 2018
“A lot of people say that we have a bright future,” Embiid said. “But I think our time is now. We have a pretty good chance [to contend for a title]. We have a special team, you know, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else.” […]
This summer was supposed to be the time when they add a key piece to make them a legitimate contender. But this group of Sixers are making everyone in the league take notice.
“So we got to work with what we have, and we have a special team,” Embiid said.
Embiid’s not wrong. Yes, Philadelphia’s set up to be a contender for years to come, thanks to a monstrous young core of Embiid (age 24), Simmons (21), Saric (24) and 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz (19), plus another potential top-10 pick coming this year and nearly $25 million in salary cap space to spend this summer (plus the potential to create more, should the opportunity to import, say, a max-salary-level wing player present itself). But this year’s model is on an extraordinary run right now, as the Sixers are winners of 19 of their last 20 games dating back to mid-March. They’re blitzing opponents by nearly 14 points per 100 possessions over that span, according to NBAwowy.com, a rate far outstripping the NBA-best full-season net ratings of elite teams like the Rockets, Raptors and Warriors.
They’ve roasted opposing defenses with and without Embiid, thanks to Simmons’ preternatural playmaking gifts as a 6-foot-10 point guard/matchup nightmare and the long-range shooting of Redick, 3-and-D swingman Robert Covington and buyout-market acquisitions Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. They’ve brutalized opposing offenses with overwhelming size, length and quickness, especially when they’ve had Embiid in the middle to effectively wall off the front of the rim; the Heat have taken a lower percentage of their shots in the restricted area with Embiid on the court than when he’s been unavailable, and have shot just 19-for-39 (48.7 percent) at the front of the rim in Embiid’s minutes in this series.
Philly’s got balance, depth, top-end talent and a smart coach who’s suffered through the growing pains of building a roster from scratch and who knows how to push the right buttons for his team. With Embiid now back in the fold, the Sixers look downright scary — remember, Philly’s point differential with JoJo on the floor this season was the equivalent of what you’d expect from a 68-win team, according to Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass — especially in the context of what else is going on in the Eastern half of the bracket.
The Raptors went from riding high to being visited by old ghosts. A LeBron-led team hasn’t looked this vulnerable this early, or had to work this hard in Round 1, in a smooth decade. While help is on the way, the second-seeded Boston Celtics remain ravaged by injury and locked in a series in which they don’t have the best player.
The East hasn’t felt this ripe for chaos since LeBron took his talents to South Beach. Yeah, the Sixers are young, and young teams don’t tend to last long come springtime. Then again, a look back over the last couple of decades reveals a few exceptions — the 2010-11 Thunder, the 2006-07 Jazz, the 1994-95 Magic — to suggest that sometimes a team with the right collection of ready-before-their-time talent, veteran seasoning and favorable matchups can find its way into the final four, and maybe even into the championship round. It’s rare, but it has happened before. So yeah: with the rest of the conference in flux, why not Philly?
That’s admittedly heady stuff to put on a team whose rotation features five players ages 27 and under making their first NBA playoff appearance, led by a coach who has plenty of postseason reps as an assistant from his years on Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio, but who is now experiencing the pressure for the first time in the lead chair. And there’s plenty that Philly’s got to be mindful of when it comes to the challenge of winning a closeout game against a proud, tough, aggressive and physical Heat team that’ll be plenty willing to get chippy if it means extending their season.
But the Sixers have passed damn near every test put in front of them so far during this remarkable season, and they’re entering Tuesday expecting to put themselves in position to move on to more advanced work. From Ian Begley of ESPN.com:
“I’m sure I’m biased but I feel, as I look at the playoffs and I look at our team, that we have as much room for growth as anybody. I think we have more room for growth,” said Brown, whose team is led by Embiid and 21-year-old Ben Simmons. “I look at that as a real exciting opportunity. You sort of go through college and now here we are in grad school, if you will, and we have a chance to learn a lot more. And we need to.”
“Our mindset is to close it out,” Joel Embiid said.
Take care of business at home, and the Sixers will earn themselves a few more days of rest, practice and preparation while they wait for the rest of the East to sort itself out. The path to a title is long and arduous, but Embiid and company can take the first step on Tuesday. One thing’s for sure: they won’t be lacking for confidence when they take their home court to set about getting the job done.
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