Bad Opponents Forever
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You remember the tweet, right? I don't recall the exact wording (or even who originally tweeted it) well enough to search for it -- sorry, someone who knows what I'm talking about let me know and I'll add it in later -- but it was one of those tweets that gets shared around a handful of times a season, about how as a fan of the 76ers, you feared no championship contenders, only sub-.500 teams. It wasn't always a fair summary of the Sixers fan experience -- there were definitely some years (or at least some months) there where they mostly beat the teams they should beat and vice versa. But generally, it was a commonly held, oft-reinforced Sixers fan sentiment: Goddamn, if this team could only not fall apart against crap teams and way-shorthanded contenders, they might really be something.
Turns out we were right. The last two weeks, the Sixers have played the softest six games on their schedule this year -- honestly maybe the softest six games in a row any team has ever played during the NBA season -- and they have absolutely cleaned up. If we wondered what life would feel like watching a team who you could actually trust to take care of business against the gross powdery resin at the bottom of the league's barrel, now we know the answer: feels pretty fucking good chief. More of this forever please.
Whether or not the Sixers are true championship contenders right now, it is abundantly clear that they are Very Normally Good. They have an MVP frontrunner, they have another top 20 guy, they have a coach who doesn't play Russian Roulette with his own foot, and they have an extremely nice and almost entirely logical roster of complementary pieces alongside them. And if there's one thing a Very Normally Good team is gonna do, it's not just beat teams whose starting fives would have a coin-flip chance against our starting units, but really put the hurt on them, make them yearn for G-League relegation. And in this stretch, that's exactly what the Sixers have done, to the tune of the highest five-game point differential in NBA history.
Not that it's terribly surprising when you see the names and contexts of the teams they've beaten: the Wizards, the Hawks (without Trae Young), the Wizards again, the Pistons, the Pistons again, and the Hornets (without pretty much anyone). But names and records aside, trap games abounded in this stretch, a field of land mines buried under non-descript walkways. Nevertheless, the Sixers escaped the Too Much Rest game against the Wizards, dodged an Annoying Shorthanded Team L against the Hawks, proved rather authoritatively that it is possible to beat a bad team two times in a row against Detroit and then even made us feel ridiculous for wondering if we were at risk on the second night of a back-to-back on the road in Charlotte. Many iterations of this team would've dropped one, possibly two of those games, others still would've gotten out to early leads and then still made us sweat the results down the stretch. This version of the team gets a little momentum behind them and they're off, still in a full sprint as they cross the finish line.
Of course, the most fun part about this is Joel Embiid. Joel against this level of regular season competition is officially at that peak Larry Bird/Michael Jordan point of needing an extra challenge to keep things interesting, and this combination of the 30/10 streak he's on and the time limit of only getting three quarters max to compile his numbers is certainly doing that. It his been both awe-inspiring and hilarious to see him bursting out of the gate in the first and third quarters in a mad dash to get his stats to the appropriate benchmarks with the clock always ticking behind him -- and to see him actually getting there with barely any resistance from the opposition. Honestly, all 29 other teams in the NBA right now must know that when Embiid is close to a round number or stat achievement, he's going to unapologetically gun for it as soon as he gets the chance, and there's still absolutely nothing they can do to stop him from getting it. He's up to 40-13-4 on 62/41/92 shooting in just 32 minutes a night this month -- having not played in any of the past four fourth quarters -- and while he has a run like this pretty much every season, it's never come quite this early or been quite this overwhelming before. This is as close to watching Solved Basketball as we've seen in Philly since Wilt.
And while Maxey hasn't quite been at the same level of consistency throughout the run -- he had an absolute clunker against Washington, and has generally just kinda had to get out of the way of Joel's stat-padding in a couple of the other blowouts -- when the two are clicking together, as they did Saturday night in Charlotte, it's like watching the Phillies go full Home Run Derby on the Braves in the NLDS. Embiid was cartoonishly unstoppable in the first quarter and Maxey was so scorchingly hot in the second that it seemed like the Hornets' best hope of not getting run off the court was to at least keep the duo's greatness isolated to its individual components. But then in the third, Embiid was doing so much damage that the Hornets had no choice but to start sending extra help -- which led to wide open looks for Maxey that he had no problem draining. The Hornets' players, home fans and (particularly) broadcast team seemed overtaken with what the hell are you supposed to do with these dudes incredulity by that point, and the answer was clear: nothing, especially if you're the injury-racked Charlotte Hornets.
But the really great part is it's not just the two of them. It's DeAnthony Melton and Robert Covington playing cornerback and free safety like their last name was Woodson, picking off or knocking loose just about any passes or drives in their vicinity. It's Marcus Morris Sr. condensing about a season's worth of heat-checky shooting in a two-week span, making us all look the hateriest of haters for doubting his place in the rotation. And most of all, it's our third unit -- the C-teamers -- coming in when the game is already decided and just applying further pressure on the other team's neck, protecting the point differential (Sixers lead the league by a mile at +11.9) and either increasing the lead or holding serve in three of the last four fourth quarters. Do you realize Danuel House Jr. has played 35 minutes the past four games? Prior to that, he hadn't even seen the floor since before Thanksgiving.
Does it any of it actually mean anything? Well, when you get nearly 1/3 of the way through the season without a single loss to a bad team on the schedule -- the Mitchell-less Cavs would probably come closest, though that team is such a mess right now you could argue they're actually more powerful when compromised -- it probably means you're gonna finish with a pretty damn good regular season record, health permitting. And if you're hopping on the Spike-led Embiid B2B MVP train, certainly that engine is a-motorin' after this absolutely stoopid run of pure dominance, which has shot him clear above Jokic (and pretty much everyone else) by just about any primary or secondary statistical measure -- not to mention his the near-overwhelming gulf that now separates them in That Boy Niceness.
But in truth, it's not like we haven't been here before. Longtime Process practitioners will of course recall the Sixers plowing through a sub-standard regular-season schedule to end the 2017-18 season, winning 16 straight games (many without Embiid, even) before getting waxed by the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs. And more recently than that, there were the 2020-'21 Sixers, who -- in Daryl Morey's and Doc Rivers' first years with the franchise -- went on 11-3, 14-3 and 8-0 schedule runs where they regularly spanked bad teams, on their way to securing the 1 seed (and of course getting bounced by Atlanta in the second round of the playoffs). We've maybe never seen the Sixers be quite this regular-season dominant, or quite this secure against subpar competition, but for the most part, regular-season performance has not been their issue -- they've often been flustering, and occasionally downright confounding, but for the most part they've been a really good 82-game team for nearly the entire Joel Embiid era. Whether their ability to beat the Hornets by 50-something instead of 20-something actually brings them any closer to the third round of the playoffs remains to be seen.
This is all long-term stuff, though. What it means in the short-term is that the Sixers are playing stress-devoid, non-stop-free-money basketball, bringing joy to the city of Philadelphia and letting everybody else be weird for once. It won't last all season, and it likely won't even last through the upcoming week, but it is the kind of basketball we would've anticipated getting precisely zero of this year when things were at their darkest this summer. Big wins against big teams may ultimately be more rewarding, but no other kind of basketball is quite this satisfying. And for once, we can safely turn off our night lights when the darkness falls and the bad teams come out, safe that the sub-.500 monsters that have caused us nightmares in years past are finally no real threat to our peaceful slumber.