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I’m certainly not surprised that the Sixers lost Game Four yesterday. I’d hoped that they’d win and allow us a full 48 hours of anti-Drake memes and Kyle Lowry slander, safe in the assuredness that a 3-1 series lead provides, but I think even the most confident of us going into this mini-homestand figured a split was the most likely outcome. Friend of the Ricky Jim Adair predicted pre-series that the team’s path to victory would be LWWLWW — made sense at the time, and 4 for 4 so far.
If anything, I think you almost have to be encouraged that it was a Yeah Well If Only sort of loss for Philly. I was worried -- especially from the way the game started -- that it wasn’t just going to be a win, but a reactivation: a game where all the Toronto role players came back to life in such a dramatic way that they reasserted their dominance from Game 1 and won the day handily. They played better, maybe even well, but not in any kind of WHOA THE RAPTORS way to really make you fearful for the rest of the series: 42 points on 38 shots combined for Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka is nice enough but hardly back-breaking.
The pressure was still on Kawhi Leonard to be the T1000 -- and of course he was, because LOL at the idea of Kawhi Leonard even comprehending the concept of pressure. But Yeah, Well, If Only: if only Joel Embiid hadn’t been sick, or had been taking threes, or made a couple free throws or hit that lane runner he’s normally automatic on -- or if only Ben Simmons hadn’t stiffed that wide-open layup, or if only Tobias Harris hadn’t bricked 11 of his 13 threes, or if only Greg Monroe hadn’t shot with the finesse of Chris Farley around the rim, you get the idea. Which isn’t to say that the Raps wouldn’t have had their fair share of YWIOs to throw around if they had lost, too -- most involving Pascal Siakam and/or three-point shooting -- but just to say the Sixers dropped this one, but they didn’t have to. They lost, but they weren’t particularly out-talented, out-schemed or outplayed.
Four games through a series against the team I roundly believed to be the best in the East -- with a shot at being the best in the league -- and it’s splitsville so far, about as even as a series can be. It’s enough to make me wonder: Have we already seen what we needed to see from this team this postseason? Is there anything left to prove before we start petitioning Josh Harris to open his checkbook and make sure we keep the band together well into the next decade?
The Sixers placed finals expectations at a minimum on this team following their two midseason trades, and obviously a conference semis loss would be well below that. But such expectations were never reasonable in a do-or-die sense: Any one of the four teams remaining in the East were credible finals contenders by the point Elton Brand & Co. started talking in such lofty terms, and even in a best-case scenario, the Sixers would never have been overwhelming favorites to be the last team standing. All you could really ask of them -- all you could really demand of them, anyway -- was that they demonstrate that they’re not out of their depth as one of those four teams. A loss to Toronto in the style of the Boston series last year, and it would’ve probably been fair grounds for hitting the reset button in the summer.
But I think we’re already past that at this point. Maybe the difference between losing and five and losing in six isn’t that grand at the end of the day, but the Sixers have shown so much more in this series -- and against Brooklyn, for that matter -- than they did against Boston, a series where they just never seemed to be at a true advantage. Flip a ridiculous Kawhi make with a wide open Tobias miss yesterday and we’re practically coasting to the finals from here. That those two shots happened as they did is significant, but compared to last year’s barrage of horrifying late-game turnovers and defensive breakdowns, we’ll take it.
Enough to open the checkbook and ask Who Wants What, though? Well, for Jimmy Butler, probably. He was once again a brilliant and indispensable playoff performer last night, with a 29-11-4 line and strong defense and decision-making throughout, very much seeming like the steadying force he was always supposed to be on the court when not creating chaos everywhere else. He seems to take bringing out the best in Joel as a personal responsibility, and JoJo seems to respect him enough to not chafe at his crop-topped direction-barking. It’s worth noting that Butler is already as far as he’s ever gotten in the playoffs -- he’s never won more than two games in the second round -- and this is about as good as Playoff Jimmy has ever been. We’ll almost certainly feel the pinch of a Butler max within two or three years, but it’s hard to argue that this version of him isn’t worth whatever year and dollar amount he could demand.
The discussions for Harris and J.J. Redick might be a little stickier. Tobias simply hasn’t provided max-level production for this team, either in the regular season or the playoffs, so if it’s a nine-figure deal he seeks, the Sixers are probably gonna have to do some editing on the specifics. But as a fourth option, it’s hard to imagine we’ll find a replacement on the margins, and there’s something to be said for betting on the future development of a guy who’s gotten better every year he’s been in the league and is still only 26. J.J. will be 35 next season, and might not be able to live monastically enough to play at this level for as long as he wants to sign his next contract for. But there’s no denying he’s doing what we need him to this postseason -- barely averaging one rebound and assist a game, but scoring 14 a night on a playoff career best 63% True Shooting, while actually sorta holding his own on defense -- and as long as Philly continues to offer him the best chance of title contention, a trustworthy infrastructure and a tolerable commute from Brooklyn, we’ll have a good chance at squeezing another workable contract out of Jonathan Clay.
Really, this entire playoff run is primarily about finding out the answer to one fairly simple question: Can we trust that this starting five is good enough for the Sixers to contend perennially in the years to come? It would seem to me that the answer to that is already a fairly unequivocal yes -- especially when you consider the bountiful room for improvement (and reason to believe they can get there) from Embiid, Simmons and maybe even Harris to potentially offset any impending decline for Butler and Redick. There’s questions about depth, about management, about the medical staff, about the ownership -- but if our first five can hang with any other team’s first five now and moving forward, it’s worth keeping together at just about any cost. Get the starting lineup back for another run or two, make the development Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden into playable bench guys a priority, and we’re a successful veteran dice-roll or two away from having a reliable playoff rotation for at least the next couple years.
And actually, there was a second question here that might be nearly as important: Can we trust that Brett Brown is the right guy to lead our perennial contender? Maybe this question hasn’t been answered so unequivocally just yet, but I don’t see any way that his job isn’t safe for at least next year at this point: After the Boston drubbing, we needed to see him prove that he could make the necessary playoff adjustments to keep his team in a playoff matchup in which they start at a disadvantage, and now we’ve seen him do it in two straight series. There’s tests he’ll still need to pass, but this was the biggest and the most pressing, and even if Kawhi shreds us for 70 in each of the next two games, you have to feel more confident about Brett moving forward than you did going into this postseason. He’s growing as much as anyone.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in the rest of this series. I’ll go out on not that big of a limb and say that whoever takes Game Five will end up advancing -- and that I do believe at this point that it’ll be the Sixers -- but it’s far from a guarantee. The Sixers could lose in six, and it could be pretty dispiriting in the moment. But if they do, I hope that we don’t forget what we’ve already learned about our team and our coach through four games of this series, where we’ve played a team that seemed like the toughest, deepest, most playoff-geared team in the East to a draw and forced their best player -- who may very well be playing in a different conference next year -- to be ‘93 MJ to even have a chance against us. If it ends up being a playoffs defined by Yeah Well If Only, we can live with that, as long as it doesn’t become a Yeah Well If Only summer too.