Well, Sixers fans, it’s that time of year. WE can sit back and enjoy all of the other teams in the playoffs and get ready to see how we’re going to attack the draft. Speculation on picks, free agents, trades, how much longer the process is going to take. You know the drill. It’s business as usual in Philadelphia for basketball fans at this time of year. Right?
Wrong. Dead wrong. The Sixers having been cruising along of late. Riding an eight game win-streak after last night’s win over the Knicks, the Sixers form at the Wells Fargo Center has been staggering.. At 44-30 the Sixers have guaranteed themselves a winning record and they’re in the playoffs. They’re the second hottest team in NBA, behind the ten-game win streak of the NBA leading Houston Rockets. It’s a good time to be a Sixers fan and the band wagon is starting to fill up.
As the Sixers prepare for their first trip to the playoffs, in what seems like 30 years, can we expect anything good? Are they just a product of a poor Eastern Conference? Are they too young and inexperienced to make a difference in the playoffs? We’re going to find out shortly, but we can look at some of the things that can help the Sixers.
Brett Brown is going to have to really coach his rear off
Everyone loves to kick Brown when the Sixers lose. He had a poor rotation, didn’t recognize when the team needed a timeout, didn’t use his team correctly, etc. The list goes on. The truth is that Brown has earned himself some consideration for Coach of the Year. I understand that Mike D’Antoni will probably win the award as the Rockets have been flat out dominant for the whole year but, would any coach really have a hard time with James Harden and Chris Paul on the team. Brett Brown, for all of the grief that he’s been given over the first few years of “The Process”, has done a fantastic job this season.
No one expected the Sixers to be playing as well as they are. They’re currently the 13th ranked team in the NBA in offensive efficiency and they’re the 4th best defensive team in the league. There’s a lot to be said for Brown, when you’re looking at these numbers. He’s taken a group of players that haven’t been on the court and turned them in to a winning team. People will argue with him sitting Simmons and Embiid at the end of games and sometimes almost the whole fourth quarter, but he’s trying to keep his guys healthy and not worried about their individual stats. His concern is having the whole team ready come playoff time. Now that it’s here, he’s really going to have to look at how he uses his players in the middle parts of games, so that he has Simmons, Embiid, Covington and Saric on the floor in the fourth quarter.
There can’t be any letting up on the gas if the team gets up by a lot in any of these playoff games. All of the teams are playing for their season and he must make sure that he’s using his rotation effectively. If you’re looking for a true Coach of the Year, look no further than Brett Brown because he’s gone from the punching bag of NBA coaches to one of the top in the league this year.
Fultz finally returns:
When looking at the playoff rotation, it should be a lot better now we’ve seen the return of Markell Fultz this past week. Fultz, finally back in the lineup after a five month layoff, put up 10 points and 8 assists in just 14 minutes in his return to action. What we did see from Fultz was good aggressiveness and even though he showed some signs of rust, as expected, he was moving well and using moves that made him the #1 overall pick in last years draft. Some good moves off the ball, good penetration and even managed to hit his mid-range, step back jumper.
Although he only shot 5-13 from the field, the feeling has to be that he’ll continue to get better as he sees more in game action. The Sixers, as they’ve been winning this year, don’t need Fultz to be the star or even a starter in the playoffs this year but, if they can get 15-20 minutes a game out of him for the playoffs, running the second unit, the Sixers will be a huge problem for anyone that they go up against. His talent and ability are going to push TJ McConnell to the third point guard, but they’ll help Ilyasova and Belinelli on the second unit.
Having, basically, a starter playing on the second unit is going to be huge. His dribbling and penetration will allow the shooters on the second unit to get open and the Sixers thrive on open jump shots. Belinelli has been hitting on 48% of his threes in the past several games and that should continue as he sees good looks with team having to focus on Fultz. Ilyasova, has been playing well of late with almost 10 points and 5 rebounds per game.
Having Fultz on the floor, he could be paired with those two and Richaun Holmes, even giving Justin Anderson minutes at small forward and that’s a tough defensive second unit as well as being one that could put up some points. Fultz is the key though. He looked comfortable, just a little rusty in his first game back. Coming in to a team where Embiid and Simmons are the stars and Dario Saric is the silent killer, will only help as well as having those guys bringing constant positive energy and support to him. Fultz can be the key to a deep playoff run for the Sixers.
Our selfless rookie of the year:
Ben Simmons has been taking less than ten shots per game of late. He’s still pulled off three triple-doubles in his last five games and only missed a triple-double in the other two because he scored less than ten points. His passing is something to marvel at, as he sees plays before they happen and he’s got to the point now where teammates have to be ready at all times for him to hit them with a pass. For someone that’s so young and inexperienced to possess the ability that he does and have it work against the best competition is amazing. He’s doing this in his first NBA season.
It’s going to be tough over the next few years as he continues to get better. Simmons needs, for the Sixers to be successful in the playoffs, to push the envelope when it comes to scoring. He has to drive and create more shots for himself. His height, ability and athleticism are above and beyond what he’ll be going against defensively, so he needs to use those things to his advantage and really become an offensive force for the team, not just in passing the ball, but actually scoring. He’s a humble player and doesn’t really look for individual stats, but now’s not the time to be humble. Now’s the time to show everyone what you can do.
Dario Saric has been an absolute monster of late from three-point land for the Sixers. For the season he’s been shooting 40% from beyond the arc, but as of late he’s upped that to just under 46%. He’s been a machine from downtown and while he gets minutes with the second unit, Saric doesn’t seem like he’ll be falling off that mark any time soon, especially with Fultz commanding the second unit and opening up the floor for him. If he improves, just a little bit of his defense, the second unit is going to be, as I discussed earlier, a real terror for opponents.
The phrase that must not be named:
Health, it seems, is always the big question with the Sixers. But, for this season, we haven’t really seen them falling apart. With Simmons and Embiid both missing whole seasons, it was expected for people to not believe that the Sixers could pull it together this season, but they have and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down.
Embiid has been everything that he was advertised to be and Simmons is even better. The fact that players like Saric, Covington, Ilyasova, McConnell and Belinelli have all stepped up, gives the Sixers a deep roster, filled with talent. Justin Anderson just might be the last part to the radiation in the playoffs. He’s very athletic, can score points, knock down some outside shots, but most importantly, he’s a very good defender. His athleticism is going to be needed later in games and especially when the team is resting the starters for time during the playoff games. Anderson has been quiet, this year, but he’s been ready when called upon and good for the time that he gets in to games.
This team is young. They are inexperienced. They are all experiencing the playoffs for the first time. But, that doesn’t mean that they can’t really go far in the playoffs. They definitely don’t believe they’re a fluke or a lucky team. They believe in themselves and what they can do. They’re hungry to prove that they’re a legitimate playoff and championship contender, so what’s to say they’re not. The Cavaliers have a ton of issues. The Celtics have a bunch of injuries. The Raptors seems to be humming along, but that’s not to say that the Sixers couldn’t beat them in a seven-game series. There’s really nothing to hate against this Sixers team right now and to see them in the playoffs, at this stage of the process, is amazing. But, to see that they could be a legitimate contender this year, at least from the Eastern Conference, is beyond words. We’ll just have to wait and see as it plays out, but right now it’s an exciting time to be a Sixers fan, so move over and open up another seat, because there are going to be a lot of people jumping on the wagon as they go forward.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports