Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
Andrew's writing is brought to you by Kinetic Skateboarding! Not only the Ricky's approved skate shop, but the best place to get Chucks, Vans, any apparel. Use code "DAVESILVER" for 9.1% off your order.
Pre-Process scholars will tell you that the Philadelphia 76ers have been here before this decade: a Game Seven on the road in the conference semis, after winning a Game Six at home when many had counted them out of the series. That was also the plot in 2012, wth the eighth-seeded Sixers improbably finding themselves in the second round after the top-seeded Bulls suffered crippling injuries that left them vulnerable to a first-round upset. Then, somehow, the veteran Celtics proved unable to beat the Sixers twice in a row in their second-round matchup, trading off Ws for six games before meeting in Boston for a decisive Game 7.
Of course, those same pre-Process scholars will also tell you that that wasn’t really the same situation at all. The players are all different now, natch -- the only one still with the team currently runs our front office. More importantly, though, that Doug Collins-era squad had scarcely proven themselves a playoff-caliber squad, let alone a championship contender. They had gotten by a depleted Bulls team -- barely -- and they were pushing the Celtics to seven, though none of us could really explain how or why, beyond Boston star PG Rajon Rondo just being an inconsistent weirdo. But there was no expectation we’d be able to advance further than that: Either in the next series, where we were surely to get steamrolled by Miami, or in future years, where we lacked the top-level talent to develop into a truly elite core.
The Game Seven that this year’s 76ers squad faces is obviously a different beast. We’re not in a happy-to-be-here spot: We went into this season with expectations of making the conference finals, goals that were bumped up a level with the midseason trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Now it’s Finals or bust for management and ownership, and the former seems achievable: Get past the Raptors on Sunday and then it’s a Milwaukee Bucks squad that’s rolling this postseason -- 8-1 through two rounds -- but which the Sixers matched up pretty well with late in the regular season, and which has needed presumptive MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to be superhuman against us to keep them in games. And then in the finals… who knows? Kevin Durant is hobbled, Steph Curry is slumping and LeBron James is nowhere to be found. It’s a new NBA world out there, and one whose current hierarchy is still largely TBD.
But I don’t want us to get that far ahead of ourselves. Really, I’d just like to appreciate the moment of having a Game Seven to play this Sunday, after a decisive Game Six victory that gave the momentum arrow of this series a good, hard spin. This team has proven what they needed to prove, and now we can just root for them to win because it’s more fun when they win than win they lose.
I wrote close to the same thing after Game Four, after they had blown a close game at home to the Raps to leave the series tied at 2-2, since I thought the Sixers had still shown enough to keep their starting lineup (and their coach) in place for the immediate future. Then of course, the Sixers proceeded to get immolated in Game Five, a 36-point road loss where just about everyone played as badly as Embiid looked like he felt, a disastrous showing that left fans understandably peeved.
Gotta say, though: I really didn’t see the apocalyptic conclusions that the fanbase’s anger would swell to coming. Fire Brett? OK, we’d probably get that one if reports emerged that the coach had forgotten to signal before turning onto Broad Street on his way to the game. Trade Ben? You’d hope that his excellent first round and stellar defense against arguably the best player in the playoffs this series would help put those at bay, but OK, he’s averaging under ten and shooting less often than James Ennis, that one’s probably inevitable too.
But… trade Joel? He’s a diva who’ll never be a winner? We’d be better off building around Jimmy Butler, who before this postseason was written off as a clubhouse cancer who took games off on defense and couldn’t dial it up on offense the way he used to? The entire Process was a waste? What the hell is going on here?
These were positions vocalized by a truly disturbing percentage of the fanbase following the Game Five loss, and it really makes for a convincing argument against fans being allowed to watch the games at all. It’d be a waste of time to get into all the reasons why giving up on Embiid would be the dumbest decision a franchise who has made a lot of profoundly dumb decisions in the past decade could possibly make at this point -- and there’s no chance of it happening, so moot point anyway. But suffice to say, the Sixers were at a point going into Game Six where another bad loss -- or maybe just any home loss at all -- could have led to an offseason of considerable team-wide tumult.
That didn’t happen. The Sixers took control early last night, trailing for about one possession in the first and leading by double digits for most of the rest of the game. Jimmy continued to lead the way through the first half, and Ben had his strongest all-around game throughout. Joel didn’t have the stats of a true bounce-back performance -- just 17 on 5-14 shooting, acceptable but unextraordinary -- but still sorta controlled the game throughout. He anchored the team with his defense and rebounding, drawing attention in the half-court to let his teammates maneuver as needed, knocking down a couple big threes and getting a huge block on Kawhi Leonard that triggered a Simmons fast break in the third. He posted a +40 in his 36 minutes on the court, but even more crucially, the rest of the team posted a -28 in his 12 minutes off, utterly disintegrating whenever he stepped to the bench. We need Jo like water, like breath, like rain.
Could it still be the end of everything if we lose on Sunday? Maybe: Management’s rhetoric has made it so that if the team does lose in seven -- a perfectly reasonable outcome given the Raptors’ title ambitions, skill level and home court advantage -- it can be viewed as a bitterly disappointing outcome for the season. And the fanbase has shown an extreme willingness this postseason to view the franchise’s entire outlook through the lens of one single game, regardless of larger context, so maybe it’s just a 72-hour stay of execution on those Embiid trade demands till we get Control-era Janet on him again. I’ll try to be less blindsided by it this time, at least.
Through just about every set of standards that actually matters, though, this has already been a very impressive playoff showing from these Sixers. They sledgehammered an unworthy challenger in the first round, and now that they’re facing a second-round opponent that was by all metrics significantly superior to them in the regular season, they’re playing them to a draw: Two highly decisive wins and one close escape job on both sides. If either team in this series is conclusively better it isn’t by much; if they played a best of 35 it’d probably go at least 30. Meanwhile, Philly showed all the heart and toughness you’d want to see from them in bouncing back from a potentially soul-snatching Game Five loss to stick Game Six in Kyle Lowry’s eye -- proving, as a certain hivemaster would say, exactly what they ain’t. They well outlasted the Celtics. They’d probably beat either the Blazers or Nuggets handily. There’s not much of an argument against the Sixers being one of the five best teams in the league right now.
For this season, it should be enough just to know that. Yes, expectations were raised with the Butler and Harris trades, but not by as much as our front office might have pretended: Butler is great but a tricky possession-by-possession fit alongside Embiid and Simmons, Harris isn’t an All-Star and literally never was. Our depth was depleted to the point where Brett really might have no choice but to keep his rotation to seven guys on Sunday. Embiid is 25 and Simmons is 22, and the two have played a combined five (incomplete) seasons; by this point in their on-court careers, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had yet to even win a playoff series. Could the Sixers win the title this season? Yes. Should they win the title? Probably not. Must they win the title? Christ, has our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie really taught us that little?
Personally, I’d like to just enjoy Game Seven without worrying about what it means for the future, because really, it shouldn’t mean very much. We know what we know now: Embiid and Simmons are worthy franchise anchors that will nonetheless be somewhat difficult to build around in tandem. Butler is a brilliant third wheel, worth paying to keep around even if it burns us on the back end. Harris and Redick are imperfect players but worthwhile 4th and 5th options, better than any alternatives we could afford next season, and should be kept around if practical. The bench needs upgrading and solidifying, but this Sixers squad deserves another shot next season regardless, with Brett at the wheel -- true no matter the result on Sunday.
Back in 2012, the Sixers fought the Celtics even for three quarters of Game Seven, but just didn’t have the stuff to hang with Boston down the stretch, as Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo iced the game for an 85-75 final. (Yes, 2012 was a long time ago.) That was fine, though, because we knew what the Sixers were: A lightly above average squad who had gotten enough breaks to achieve far more than they had any right to. And to their credit, the Sixers brass acknowledged that, splitting up the team in the offseason -- amnestying Elton Brand, letting Lou Williams walk and trading Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bynum, a deal that proved quickly disastrous but was still sound in its logic and intentions. (And from there, of course, The Process was ultimately borne.)
The franchise is in a very different but ultimately somewhat similar spot as the end of this Toronto series approaches. The players are better, the ceiling is higher and the expectations are loftier, but the lesson is the same: No matter how this series ultimately goes, it shouldn’t affect what already we know to be true about this team, and how we treat them once the series ends. We were able to enjoy the Game Seven against Boston because nobody had any illusions about what the team was or could do. I really, really hope the same will be true on Sunday and the months to come.