Sixers Just Notched the Best Back-to-Back Regular Season Wins in Process History: Now What?
We can see the potential now, we can talk ourselves into more being possible, we can be excited for the present and for the future.
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.
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I think we had all sorta come to terms with what this Sixers regular season was going to be, right? Through five games, they had won three and lost two -- each the ones you'd guess looking at their schedule before season's start. The wins were convincing but not overwhelming, the losses were discouraging in predictable ways. Joel Embiid looked dominant but human. Tyrese Maxey was up and down. Tobias Harris was Tobias Harris, mostly for better and slightly for worse. Some shooters showed up, some hadn't. The guy wearing No. 25 was nowhere to be found. If the Phillies spent this summer aiming to be the most .500 team in baseball history, the Sixers appeared to have their sights on being definitively .600 -- clearly slightly above average, with no hope of true consistency or greatness.
But then, the Hawks win. And after that, the Blazers win. Now.... well, I don't know what to think about this team, exactly.
It's without question the best pair of consecutive regular-season victories we've seen with the Liberty Ballers since this whole grand experiment began eight seasons ago. Even expanding it to the playoffs, I think I might only take Games Two and Three of the Raptors series in 2019 over it. No other back-to-back victories of the Hinkie or post-Hinkie era felt this surprising, this fulfilling, this relieving. And they couldn't have been much more different from one another, either.
I was ready to declare the Hawks win the best of the (non-playoff) Process era on its own on Saturday night. It's got competition for sure -- the opening-night win against Miami that first Process season, the impossibly overdue slaying of the Celtics sealed by Jimmy Butler's jumper in 2019, the Christmas Day massacre of the Bucks in 2019 and the OT statement win against the Jazz just before the All-Star break last season, all worthy contenders. Given that the relatively undramatic nature of this weekend’s win and how early in the season it still is, the superlative is certainly arguable.
But we've never quite had the baggage before like what we had going into that Atlanta game this season. The three home losses out of four against ATL in the playoffs, including one of the worst fourth-quarter meltdowns in playoff history and a Game Seven loss so scarring that it makes the Center a haunted house anytime the Hawks visit for the rest of the decade... there was really just no taking our team seriously (or letting them back in emotionally) until they proved they could beat Atlanta at home again. If they had dropped the game on Saturday night, particularly in further humiliating fashion, that really might've made it a wrap on this entire season just six games in. That's probably an exaggeration, but I just don't know how they (or we) would bounce back from a square-one loss like that.
And the win was of course a beeyootiful W. Joel, Tobias and Matisse dominated, everyone contributed (except for You Know Who), and despite every Sixers fan with a dial-up connection making some sort of "Heeeeeere we go again!" comment on Twitter whenever the Hawks made multiple consecutive buckets in the second half, Atlanta was never able to really make significant inroads into the Sixers' lead, as Philly's defense remained stalwart throughout and their offense was always able to produce buckets when really needed. It was free and easy and unclenched the way none of their three prior wins had been that season, and against a significantly better team to boot. The 28-point victory was exactly what the Sixers needed to begin to make any kind of psychic break from the trauma that defined their recent postseason exit, and it was all the validation of my decision to skip Saturday Halloween in New York this year that I could've possibly asked for.
That said, I figured its high would be fleeting. The Blazers, who skewered the Sixers in their pair of matchups last year, and who boast two of the players most coveted by Sixers fans in a potential Ben Simmons trade, were coming to town, and a letup felt inevitable. Once Embiid was ruled out -- given the rest game fans had so long been clamoring for him to receive -- it seemed basically fait accompli that this would be a comedown game for Philly, snapping their flawed roster and uneven start to the season back into focus. However, once Tobias was also ruled out, I did get a distinct feeling that maybe it wouldn't be so easy for Portland: After all, they'd tormented us with undermanned rosters showcasing the likes of Gary Trent Jr. and Shabazz Napier for years, perhaps it was time to flip the teams in that equation.
Indeed, it was. With no real go-to scorer to lean on, Philly zipped the ball around the half-court, they bombed away from beyond the arc, and they defended with extreme prejudice -- and Portland never really seemed to know what hit them. This wasn't out of reach early for the visitors like the Hawks game was for Atlanta -- the Blazers mostly hung within single digits throughout, and even battled back to tie late in the third -- but the Sixers always got the basket or two they needed to hold the Blazers at bay, and were able to string together just enough stops to escape in the fourth-quarter with one of the most objectively unlikely wins they've picked up in recent years. Again, everyone contributed: A true team win that made everyone in the red, white and blue look dashingly handsome for at least one night. It was blissful to be on this side of one of these types of wins for once.
Taken in tandem, it's a truly incredible couple of victories -- the kind that you can build a season's worth of real momentum and legitimate excitement out of. Individually, I think they're both top 10 Process regular season wins; together it's easily the best mini-run of Sixers basketball since Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner were backcourt buds, if not far longer ago.
Does it actually represent a corner-turning moment for the Sixers? That I feel less optimistic about. Not a particularly crackling observation to point out that winning without three starters is impressive but usually unsustainable, and it sounds like Tobias will be out for some time in COVID Health and Safety protocols. (A fourth starter also left the game before its end in Danny Green, whose hamstring Doc says he's "a little cornered" about.) Shooting and ball movement and youthful energy is all well and good, but eventually you hit a stretch where the shots stop falling, the passes stop connecting and suddenly the team just looks incapable of scoring in the half-court. Meanwhile, Atlanta and Portland both saw their star point guards suffer through subpar outings; not entirely divorced from the Sixers' own performance, but hardly something we could count on every time out, either.
And then there's Ben. For the first time since the season started, there are reports -- courtesy of the Inquirer and Keith Pompey, yet again -- of folks around the league expecting a Simmons return soon, perhaps during the team's upcoming road stretch. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the recent back-to-back wins was how they temporarily lifted the cloud that our estranged point-guard-not-point-guard had cast over this team all season, but the moment he's back at the forefront of team activity (or at least team goss), so is the overcast and precipitation. It's hard to imagine a Ben comeback being anything but bad news at this point; there's no future there, the vibes lost would perhaps not be worth the tradeoff of the production added, and it's sorta tough to tell where or how easily he fits into this version of the team anyway. (And play him at all the road games you want, there's no outrunning the boos for Ben Simmons this season.)
Even if Simmons doesn't return, though, and everyone else comes back healthy, I still don't know if they can look like they've looked the past two games on a consistent basis. Their rotation is too defined by the young and streaky, and turn a couple threes and steals into turnovers and costly gambles for a Thybulle or Korkmaz and all of a sudden they're liabilities again. Embiid seems hindered, and the late-game questions haven't gone away. Three good games for Maxey (and a couple solid runs for Isaiah Joe) in a row is some righteous shit, but that doesn't make him a point guard for all seasons just yet. No matter how buoyant this team seems right now, a tough upcoming stretch that includes games against the Knicks, Bucks, Raptors and Bulls (twice) over the next 10 days may throw something of a lasso around them.
But it's already too late for these two wins to be proven totally meaningless for our guys. After a first five games that seemed like the team would largely be sleepwalking their way to baseline above-averageness this season, they've once again given us reason to invest -- exorcising demons and turning the tables against a couple old foes and making a damn impressive pitch to a couple of potentially outgoing trade targets should they ever deem the situation on their current team untenable. We can see the potential now, we can talk ourselves into more being possible, we can be excited for the present and for the future. I'll remember these two games many years from now, not just as the finest consecutive regular season wins since Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie took over in 2013, but as the moment I was able to once again give myself over fully and completely to the Sixers.