Sixers face a defining stretch to end the season

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Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden goes up for a shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Philadelphia 76ers should be satisfied with the results from their first half of the season. Despite Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey, each battling injuries to start the year, the Sixers sit in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 39-19. Since Harden has returned from injury, the team has gone 27-8, which is the best record in the NBA during that period.

However, they face a defining stretch as they return from the All-Star break. Philadelphia has already defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in their first game back, yet they still have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. The Sixers have begun a stretch that will see them play 25 games in 45 days, with just 10 of these taking place at the Wells Fargo Center. This also includes five sets of back-to-backs and only eight matchups with teams that currently have losing records.

The Positives:

The Sixers are desperately hoping to clear the second-round hurdle that has continually tripped them up. The franchise has not been past the conference semifinals since 2001, and time is ticking for getting things right with this core.

While it is surely not the reason for failing to advance, it feels as if, too often, the Sixers have coasted into the postseason. This will be far from the case this season as the Sixers will be as battled tested as could possibly be the case when the postseason arrives this year.

Strangely, it has been these tough matchups that have brought out the best in the Sixers this season. Playing to the level of their competition has been a blessing and a curse for the Sixers team, and they have seen clear evidence on both dies of the spectrum.

Since Harden has returned from injury, Philadelphia has been 12-3 in matchups against opponents with a winning record. They are 13-4 in their last 16 clutch games (score within 5 with less than five minutes remaining) and have won three of the four home games in which they were underdogs this season.

The frustrating cycle of jumping out to a commanding lead before slowly allowing it to slip has become a staple of Sixers games on a nightly basis. This fine line of failing to put games away but managing to come out the victor has been frustrating but mostly has not hurt the Sixers. While it is a positive sign that their talent has overcome their overly relaxed tendencies thus far, this will not be as easy against this strenuous schedule.

Philadelphia will either learn to squash these casual tendencies or be punished for them. This second half stretch will provide a valuable learning opportunity before it matters most. There is no better way to become battle tested and build the necessary playoff toughness than by taking on one contender after another, and the Sixers will be given this opportunity in the coming weeks.

The Negatives:

Simply put, this schedule is a bloodbath. There is no way to sugarcoat the rigorous number of games and difficult opponents that Philadelphia will face. There will certainly be notable takeaways from their play, but simply surviving will be the main goal.

For the Sixers to have any sort of postseason chance it will take a fully healthy version of both Embiid and Harden on the court. Injuries to Embiid during the postseason have been an unfortunate theme throughout his career, with a number of freak issues showing face. Harden deserves a ton of credit for improving his fitness and regaining some of his burst this season; however, if the lingering groin issues show face again, the Sixers do not stand much of a chance.

Doc Rivers and the Sixers decision makers will have to walk a fine line of continuing to compete while ensuring the roster is healthy for playoffs. Continuing to build chemistry and learning to face the true contenders is important, but if a key injury occurs, it is even more damning to the Sixers’ fate.

The ugly words of load management have brought on a variety of opinions among NBA fans. It will be a necessary evil for the Sixers, given the condensed schedule. How they chose to stagger the nights off will be interesting, but having an effective plan in place to minimize potential injury will be extremely important.

What to Expect:

Flash forward past the next 25 games, and everyone is going to have a much clearer idea of what this Sixers team is about. It has been a turbulent first half of the season, with injuries clouding the start of the season.

Despite the seeming lack of optimism from the fanbase, the fact of the matter is they have impressed when on the court as fully constructed — last night’s comeback win certainly adds to that. If this can continue against the tougher competition, confidence should be high heading into the postseason. The Sixers have put their chips in the middle this season, and now it is time to see where the cards fall.