Let's Focus Our Remaining Energy on Beating the Crap Out of Miami
This is what really matters.
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Tuesday could mark the Sixers' biggest game this season since before the All-Star break, as we travel to Indiana to take on TJ, JaKarr and the rest of the Pacers. That, of course, is not really a testament to the significance of this whatever matchup -- against a comfortably sub-.500 team that's still missing enough starters to make you forget who's even supposed to be playing in the first place -- as much as it is a comment on just how few real games the Sixers have played since March. It's been a ludicrous season, but it's one that the Sixers have the opportunity to cap by clinching a 1 seed with a win in Indy tonight, their first time with the East's best record since the Process was still just a gleam in George Lynch's eye.
That's a big deal. It's a much-appreciated opportunity to avoid the Bucks or Nets until the conference finals, a guarantee of home court advantage if we do make it that far in the playoffs, and a major validation of both Daryl & Doc's first year at the joint helm of the franchise, and of Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie's entire operation that led us to this point. It'll be a cause for much celebration and much relitigation (which for Process Trusters is basically the same thing anyway). I can't wait.
That said, I'm already starting to look ahead to the Thursday game against Miami.
By Thursday, the Heat game will likely be mostly meaningless. Not definitely: There's a bunch of key dudes (including Joel Embiid) listed as questionable or doubtful for tomorrow, and if they all sit, the Pacers might have a chance of keeping the window open for Brooklyn and/or Milwaukee. But most likely: The Pacers are on the bad end of a back-to-back and have their own crowded injury report to worry about, while the reason the Sixers are about to cement the East's best record is that they haven't lost one of these games to a half-strength team of jobbers in a good minute. If the Sixers really want this game tonight, they should be able to go out and get it.
And that's cool. But a not-insignificant part of me hopes they just send the C Squad to Miami -- basically whoever's still around from the Blue Coats, plus Anthony Tolliver and Mike Scott -- and let the A Team rest up for Miami. I want that win a whole lot more than this one, and I want the Sixers to want it, too. I want them to have to try, I want it to be at least a little bit hard, and I want them to ultimately still win by 20.
It's been a long time since the Sixers had a big win. That's mostly not even their fault: It's been a long time since the Sixers had much opportunity of getting a big win, since basically every game they've had against a good team the past two months has had a core player missing -- sometimes on their side, sometimes on the other side, often times on both. It's made it impossible to gauge how good this team is actually playing, how ready they are for the playoffs, even just how resilient their good vibes are this season. Does it matter that the team is 28-5 against teams under .500 but only 19-16 against teams over .500? When it feels like only five or six games from either group featured both teams at close to full strength, who even knows?
That's made it a little tough to know where to stand as a fan, too. There was some discussion on Sixers Twitter last week about why this year doesn't feel the same as 2001, or maybe even 2019, when it comes to excitement over how good the team is going into the playoffs. For a team that'd be on pace to win 57 wins in a regular 82-game season -- including each of their last eight -- and is about to coast to their conference's best record, it's a fair question. The pandemic is certainly a major factor, as are the team's recent postseason failures and suspicions (reasonable or not) that they might not actually be as good as Milwaukee or Brooklyn when it matters. But I think the lack of big games has taken its toll on the fanbase and its ability to round into playoff form: It's hard to get pumped about a team on the verge of a potential finals run when it feels like they're playing a Utah Summer League regular season schedule. Two years ago, we had the Jimmy Butler shot-and-pose against Boston to get us at postseason intensity a few weeks before they kicked off in earnest. This year, the fanbase's fire over the Utah win -- our last truly signature win of the season, which will be about 80 days in the rearview by the time the first round actually kicks off -- has long since seen its final dying embers flicker out.
That's why I'd like to see the Sixers put their whole chest into thumping Miami on Thursday. At this point, a meeting with the Heat might not be the marquee matchup it would've been at season's beginning -- like the other three conference finals teams from last year's playoffs, their season has been decimated by injuries and underwhelming performance in general. But they're still a plus-.500 team (37-31, currently good for sixth in the East) that's been mostly trending up for the past month or so, and they're at close to full health, although deadline acquisition Victor Oladipo may still be out with the knee issues that resulted in him never really getting integrated into the team in the first place. It's a legitimate-enough showdown that TNT has flexed the game to its Thursday primetime slot -- not saying a ton in this season of mediocre-to-crappy national games, perhaps, but still at least a bet that both teams will care enough to bring it a little.
Hopefully the Sixers do, whether or not they've clinched. They could certainly use the tune-up, the reminder of what it's like to play a team whose season didn't really end in February, the challenge of having to lock in for 48 minutes and not just the first and last six. Jimmy & Co. will probably give them that, as the Heat look to climb out of the 3-6 matchup (and a first-round date with either Milwaukee and Brooklyn) and into the 4-5 (with a second-round series against Philly likely imminent). I still don't want to see Miami at any point this postseason, and I have to imagine neither do the guys on the team -- with the potential exception of Joel, who Jimmy still appears to have some weird sort of Svengali hold on. But to potentially get the chance to knock Miami out of their side of the playoff bracket while also getting the taste of blood and salt back in their mouths for the first time in months feels like something worth getting up for, whether or not they've already secured their own postseason standing.
And then? We still have two home games against Orlando -- who might have a starting backcourt of Elsa from Frozen and one of the Quad City DJs by the time they make it to Philly -- to get right, and if we somehow still need it, to coast to an easy win to ensure the one seed. Most likely, we'll spend those games getting plenty of reps for Isaiah Joe, Rayjon Tucker and Paul Reed (hell, maybe we'll even call Zhaire Smith back to Philly for the occasion) while Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris bathe in lavender and oatmeal somewhere many hundreds of miles away, and get their bodies and minds centered in time for postseason ball. If we have one more signature-ish win under our belt by then -- a beatdown of a good team who we hate and who kinda needs the W themselves -- I think they'll be ready. Just as importantly, so will we.