The First Round of the Sixers' Playoffs Starts Now
For once, the Sixers don't get to coast to the regular season's finish line. It might be a good thing -- if it doesn't cost us the biggest advantage we've had going the past month.
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It's not supposed to be like this. When you think of the end of the regular season as a Sixers fan, you think of a nice, light, tasty dessert. You think of Joel Embiid scoring 40+ against the Pacers twice in one week. You think of rookie Markelle Fultz posting an improbable triple double in Game 82 against the not-there-yet Bucks. You think of two straight home games against the cursed Magic with Dwayne Bacon, Ignas Brazdeiks and Sindarius Thornwell all getting serious minutes. And of course, you think of 16 straight wins to close the season against a schedule softer than an Olivia Newton-John Christmas album, with Marco Belinelil and Ersan Ilyasova raining holy hellfire from beyond the arc. You certainly don't think of games where the Sixers have to actually try.
They're gonna have to try this year, though. Their scheduling-closing run this year is a 10-games-in-17-nights crucible, a mix of games against teams that are actually good, teams that are only good against the Sixers, and good teams that are also especially good against the Sixers. We play two games (against Milwaukee and Denver) that might decide whether or not Embiid wins the MVP and a third (against Boston) that might decide if we can make a real run at the two seed. We play the only two teams we haven't beaten yet this year (Boston and Dallas) and nearly every East team who we might face in the East's 2-7 or 3-6 matchup (Miami, Brooklyn, Toronto, Atlanta). We play the Warriors in Golden State. We play no teams with nothing to play for. It's gonna be like having an extra round of the playoffs to go through this season. It's gonna suck.
But like… maybe in a good way. The Sixers have never started the playoffs ten games before the postseason starts for everyone else before, but I think it might ultimately work to their advantage. If they can avoid total catastrophe in the meantime, anyway.
As nice as it would be to coast for the final two and a half weeks of the regular season, the longer I watch this team -- and Joel Embiid in particular -- the more I think that rest and relaxation are not their friend. Every game it seems like the team should be coming out especially energetic and refreshed following a long layover, there's at the very least a slow start, if not a total letdown. Some of Embiid's sloppiest shooting performances of the year have come after long breaks -- 8 of 21 against Phoenix after three games out, 6 of 18 against the Nets in January following a six-day respite, 7-25 against Memphis coming out of the All-Star break. Some dudes just need to be locked in to stay locked in, and Joel has seemingly gotten stronger every month as the season has gone on; while he's playing at this impossibly high a level, we mostly just want him to keep playing, to not have enough of a breather to potentially fall back down to Earth.
And it's just good for the Sixers to get games that matter against teams that matter while they're playing their best basketball of the season. It feels like they've unlocked something important the past three weeks, with Maxey back in the starting lineup (and scorching hot again from beyond), with Paul Reed, Jalen McDaniels and Danuel House, Jr. (!!) turbo-charging the second unit (and James Harden's minutes staggered to give it a real lead playmaker), and with Embiid playing like a superstar bright enough to see from outer space. This is a team that needs to be able to measure itself against the Celtics, Bucks and Nuggets of the world, to prove to their competition and to themselves that they're as for real as they seem, and to get those of us watching from home believing like we've never believed before, despite all prior evidence suggesting it foolish. And if there's parts of what we're doing that still don't work against the best opponents the way they do against Minnesota and Charlotte... well, better to find out now, while there still may be something to be done about it, than in Games 1 and 2 against Boston or Milwaukee.
Of course, there's a Munetaka Murakami-sized "but" coming here. And that's about how of the many reasons why the Sixers have played so well lately, the biggest -- maybe even bigger than Embiid's brilliance -- might be health. After cycling through injuries to core guys for most of the season's first three months, the Sixers finally hit an elongated period of having just about everyone in the rotation (with the deal-withable exception of a stiff-hipped Jalen McDaniels) being consistently available. That's pretty lucky -- and with the last week bringing achilles soreness for Harden and a mystery ailment eventually revealed to (maybe) be calf soreness for Embiid, that luck may now be starting to run out. Each or both of those guys might have to miss time, and the more we have to play games that matter, the bigger the chances that either one of those guys or another lineup fixture catches an unexpected something. Doc has said that health will have to be the priority down the stretch, and it should be, even if it costs us in this season-ending run.
Not much to say about that, except that we'll cross that bridge when we come to it -- and if the sad case of Rhys Hoskins has reminded us of anything this week, it's that your body can randomly decide to split in two in the middle of a quintessentially meaningless Spring Training game as easily as it can during a high-stakes proto-playoff matchup. For now, we can believe the team when they say that Joel is basically fine and likely to play on Friday, at least until it's halfway through the first quarter and we still haven't gotten an explanation as to why Georges Niang is suddenly our starting center. Harden we probably shouldn't be quite so optimistic about, but recent evidence suggests his absence isn't a particular kiss of death for this team's competitiveness anyway; the Sixers are 7-1 this year (with a +12.3 point differential) in games they play with Embiid and Maxey but no Harden, and they've won the last three of those (against Minnesota, Indiana and Chicago) by a combined 68 points.
In reality, you could of course make a pretty convincing argument that a schedule easy enough to allow the Sixers to get healthy while still mounting a real charge at the two seed would be the best thing for us right now, and that we're at risk of losing our momentum going into Game 83 and beyond by playing this brutal end-of-season schedule while at potentially far less than 100% health. But... well, dammit, we've had plenty of playoff runs already where that's been the case, and whatever advantage we get from it still hasn't been good enough to get us past the second round. If we want things to be different this year, we should be prepared to go about them differently. So sure, let's give trying this time of year a try; we'll all happily sign up for starting the postseason a few weeks early if it means we finally get to write a different ending to our playoff run.