It’s April 24th and the Philadelphia 76ers are still playing basketball and should be for the foreseeable future. If you thought that was a possibility to start this season, then you’re a liar. No one could have seen this team doing what they’re doing, myself included. The scary part is that they’re just getting started. What looked like and interesting but somewhat easy series against the Miami Heat, to start the playoffs, has turned in to a lesson on playoff basketball and the Sixers are now showing the whole NBA that they’re not to be taken lightly. So what can we look forward to going forward for this post season?
The first thing that usually comes to mind in the playoffs is that the games get tougher both physically and mentally. A young team, such as the Sixers, shouldn’t be able to handle it their first time around. The best thing that could have happened to them in these playoffs is to start with Miami. The Heat are aware that they’re a less talented team, but they’re going to play a hard, physical game and the hope was that they were just talented and tough enough to put the Sixers on the defensive and take this series. Game one was a joke and the Sixers just destroyed them but in Game Two, the Heat came out and started to really show how they were going to push the Sixers around. The results were a victory, but that mostly had to do with Dwayne Wade’s trip back in time and the Sixers shooters taking an ill-timed game off. Games 3 and 4 have been absolutely insane as far as the physicality of them goes. There’ve been five sets of double technical fouls, a few dustups among players and plenty of hard fouls to go around. What the Heat didn’t expect is that the Sixers team would adapt to this style of play and come back with and show their own toughness.
After several games of Miami trying to be the bully, Ben Simmons stepped in when James Johnson went after Covington and then he put Dwayne Wade to the floor with a perfectly timed shoulder during a pick. If the Heat thought they would rattle a 6’10” 250 lb rookie, they were sadly mistaken. They’ve also managed to get under the skin of Dario Saric, who has turned that to his advantage and been a vital part of the team this series. The big problem for the Heat now, and it’s very big, is that Joel Embiid is not happy. Not with his play or that of the Heat. You could see it during Game 4 as he stated prior that he would make it a nightmare for the Heat. Even though he didn’t score much, he made it a nightmare to be anywhere near the basket when he was on the floor. If you didn’t think this team was tough at the start of the series, then you have to be aware right now and that should be on every other teams mind when they’re preparing to play them down the line.
Physical toughness is one thing, but having that mental edge is a whole different way to play the game. The Heat have a very tough and physical team, but mentally, after what the Sixers have done the past two games, they’re not there. They have to know that defeat is inevitable. The Sixers, on the other hand, have proven that they can match the physical game with a huge amount of mental toughness. Short of Justin Anderson’s temper when Wade threw him to the floor, the Sixers have remained calm in the face of a team obviously trying to bait them in to bad situations. After a horrible three quarters in Game 5, the Sixers took over in the fourth quarter and put the Heat on notice that this isn’t going to be their year and that they can overcome obstacles, whether from the opposition or their own self-inflicted ones.
Mental toughness, especially during a physically tough time of year, is an edge that can separate a team from playing in the playoffs to going to the Finals. This Sixers team, having had to play the type of series they have so far against Miami, has learned how to handle these obstacles and they’ve learned quickly. Again, this serves to show the Heat they can’t be intimidated and they won’t let them beat themselves. It also is showing the rest of the NBA that they’re not to be taken lightly and that the typical head games won’t work against this team during this time of year.
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With the Sixers featuring so many young players, the thinking would be that they’re too young to understand how the playoffs work in order to advance. They just don’t have the experience that you need to win a title. Yet, when you look at their lineup and see Belinelli, Redick, and ilyasova, all over thirty years old and contributing a lot to this team, they have the veteran leadership that they need in order to succeed. Redick and Belinelli are giving the team 18 points per game and Ilyasova is adding 12 points and 9 rebounds per game. That’s quite a contribution from the vets. Belinelli, Ilyasova and Saric are all shooting over 40% from beyond the arc with Saric hitting close to 45%.
Redick has had a bad go of it the past three games and is only hitting 30% on his three-pointers, but that won’t last long. Ilyasova was also given the tast of playing in the post during the first two games, so getting him on the floor and out in the open will up his scoring as the team relies more on Joel Embiid and Amir Johnson to man the low post. The team doesn’t seem to have any of that “lost” look that a lot of young players get when they get to the playoffs for the first time. They aren’t looking at this as a learning experience. They’ve been winning games, 19 out of their last 20, and they expect to continue winning games. They’re showing a maturity in their play and it’s refelected in the win column.
For most of the year, Coach Brett Brown has been questioned on his rotation, minutes, strategy, etc. There didn’t seem to be a game that went by where someone wasn’t asking why he did what he did. Holding his starters out of the fourth quarter or for most of the quarter during the games seemed to be counter-productive, but it seems to have instilled more of a team effort and less of a “what about my stats” mentality for the team.
When Embiid said he played horribly in the last game, there wasn’t any whining about how he didn’t get the touches he wanted or how the team should have run through him like his counterpart on Miami, Hassan Whiteside. He just said he has to play better and they, as a team needed to play better. This comes from Brown’s coaching and his handling of the players over the course of the year. What Brown was aiming for was the end game. To have his players ready and healthy to play when it mattered most and not running for individual accolades for themselves. It’s a testament to his coaching and patience with a lot of the young and talented players on the roster. Having rosters like the Warriors and Rockets do, it’s easy to see how their coaches could be mentioned in the Coach of the Year running, but if you look at the job that Brett Brown has done with this team, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be in that conversation. He has a young team, believing in themselves and playing selflessly in order to win games. That’s what it takes to win championships.
Six players are averaging in double figures for the Sixers so far in the playoffs and of those, five of them are averaging 18 or more points per game. Robert Covington isn’t far off averaging 9.3 points per game but having that many players all around the same shows that the distribution is there and that the Sixers are a very hard team to defend. You can’t just take away one guy from scoring and expect to blow them out or pull out a win. You have to account for seven guys on the floor that can really score. What’s truly scary is that Joel Embiid has only played two games after sitting out for three weeks with an orbital bone fracture.
While he might not like wearing the mask, as he gets more accustomed to it, you’ll be able to see his scoring go back up around the 23-point mark that he averaged during the regular season. That’s enough to scare any of the remaining teams in the playoffs. While they wait for that, Ben Simmons is quietly demolishing the competition. He leads the team in the four main offensive categories and is just .2 assists from averaging a triple double for the series. He’s averaging 19.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 9.8 assists and 2.5 steals per game and he hasn’t even tried to take over a game yet. He’s continued to let the game come to him and played above the level of anyone else on the floor throughout this series. As the games get tougher you can be sure that he’s going to start pushing himself to get those points the team needs or to make the play that gets the team back on track and fired up. Simmons is making it look easy on the floor and not backing down from anyone that’s trying to get under his skin.
What may be a big factor for the Sixers as they move forward is JJ Redick. While he’s averaging 18 points per game, he’s only shooting 30% on his three-point attempts. If he was even at just under his usual 41% he’d be averaging 21 points per game. He’s been cold of late for the team from downtown, but that hasn’t stopped him from shooting. Each night, it seems that someone is hitting big shots and Redick hit a long two toward the end of game four to help keep the team ahead in the closing minutes. As the playoffs go on, you can’t expect Redick to continue to shoot as poor as he has of late. If he can just get back to his normal shooting percentage, the Sixers can look to open up the floor even more and get Embiid involved in the low post as teams will be looking to contain Redick. The team as a whole is just shooting very well on the deep balls and it’s how they’ve made their money this year. For a team to be averaging 117 points per game and still not getting all they can out of Embiid along with the shooting woes of Redick, it makes it very scary for the opposition if it all starts clicking like it was during their 16 game winning streak.
Markelle Fultz has had a tough time during the playoffs and he’s seen his minutes drop in each game until he didn’t register one during Game Four. While it may seem to be a problem, the Sixers have TJ McConnell to run the second unit and they’ve fared well with him on the floor. Where Fultz can make his mark is to keep himself ready and make his presence felt, especially on the defensive end of the floor if he does see minutes in the later rounds of the playoffs or even during Game Five on Tuesday night. He could be a huge factor with his talent and ability ready when his number gets called. As the playoffs go on, minutes for bench players tend to dwindle and that’s not a good sign for Fultz but, should any of the Sixers guards get in to foul trouble he has to be ready and he could be a huge addition as they make their way through the playoffs.
When you look at the Sixers team, people tend to look at it as very youthful and they are one of the younger teams in the league, but they have veterans who are contributing quality minutes and playing above what anyone thought of at the start of this year. With the Pelicans having already swept the TrailBlazers in a surprise series, the only teams that are really pulling away are the Sixers and the Warriors. Every other series is tight and they don’t seem to be looking like they’re going to get easier. Teams like the Thunder, Rockets, Cavs and Toronto have all had their ups and downs, which is good for a team like the Sixers. With momentum in the playoffs, is there really any reason to think that this team can’t get to the NBA Finals or even win it. They can shoot and run with any of the teams in the league, including the Warriors. They defend as well if not better than anyone else in the league. They also feature Joel Embiid who, if he continues to remain healthy, doesn’t have anyone that would be able to stop him on any of the other teams.
All of this is making for the perfect storm for the Sixers as “The Process” is starting to show the rewards for the patience that the franchise has shown over the past few years. It looks like Philadelphia could, realistically, be preparing for another championship parade in the next couple of months. What’s scary for the rest of the NBA is that this team is only going to get better over the next few years and it should be striking fear in to the league.
Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports