The 76ers have a hidden advantage going into the NBA playoffs

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Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) fends off Toronto Raptors’ Scottie Barnes during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 31, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Philadelphia 76ers might have a huge advantage going into the NBA playoffs and it’s not as obvious as you might think.

It’s common knowledge that the game slows down in the postseason, so common, in fact, that it’s become almost cliché to point out. As defenses lock in and the importance of each individual possession grows more and more meaningful, teams and players will naturally be more patient with the rock, looking for the best possible shot in each opportunity.

Teams that are comfortable playing slow and aren’t overly reliant on generating chaos and transition offense are the ones that thrive in the postseason, and this season’s 76ers squad might just be the perfect tortoise in a race full of hares.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The narrative that the game slows down in the playoffs has been retreaded so many times that it’s practically become a scientific law. That said, today’s society isn’t so gracious in its acceptance of scientific consensus, so let’s go to the numbers just in case.

Last season, the average pace in an NBA game was 98.2, meaning that each team used an average of 98.2 possessions per outing. In the 2022 playoffs, that number crept down to 95.5. This could mean that only the slow-paced teams made the postseason to begin with, except the average pace for last year’s playoff teams in the regular season was also higher at 99.8. If anything, most of the successful teams in the NBA play faster in the regular season before slowing it down come springtime.

Not only does the game decelerate in the playoffs overall, it seems that the teams who are able to win at the most glacial paces are the ones that will advance the deepest. While the overall playoff average pace was 95.5, both of last season’s Finals contenders saw multiple playoff series with significantly less possessions.

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid brings the ball up during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago BullsWednesday, March 22, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Golden State Warriors had to battle the methodical manipulation of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on offense in a five-game series that saw an average of only 93 possessions per team. The Boston Celtics did their best to slow down Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in their first-round clash against the Brooklyn Nets, grinding out a seven-game series win that had a lethargic pace of just 93.1. They found a similar stride against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals with just 93.5 possessions per outing.

That all came to a head when the Dubs met the Cs in the Finals. With both sides battered and worn and the stakes at an absolute paramount, the ultimate matchup of the season saw six games a pace of just 94.6.

Both squads were comfortable playing slow to begin with — Golden State had a regular season pace of 98.4 and Boston 96.6 — but they still limited their opponents’ possessions even further in the postseason with paces of 97.1 and 95.3 in the playoffs, respectively.

The Philadelphia 76ers are built for playoff basketball

While it’s important that a team with title aspirations is comfortable playing and winning all kinds of different basketball games — i.e. fast, slow, low-scoring, high-scoring, etc. — it’s certainly advantageous when a squad is already adjusted to the playoff pace and knows how to win in that atmosphere.

It’s predictable that a team that features Doc Rivers as the head coach, Joel Embiid as the offensive focal point, James Harden as the primary ballhandler, and Tobias Harris as one of their pressure point relievers would play at a leisurely pace. The eye-test certainly matches up with the numbers here, as the 76ers are currently clocking in at just 96.7 possessions per game, good for 27th in the NBA (99.1 league average).

While Philadelphia has been extremely efficient on both ends of the court, with a 117.8 ORTG (points per 100 possessions), fourth in the league and 113.3 DRTG, eighth-ranked, playing at their preferred pace has helped them dominate this season, specifically on defense where they’re holding teams to just 110.6 points per game which is third in the NBA.

Winning games at their 96.7 pace means that the 76ers are already comfortable with the same rate of play that the Celtics reached the Finals with in last season’s playoffs and are naturally playing slower than even Golden State’s slowed-down-playoff pace. Basically, if an opponent purposefully tries to reduce their pace against the Sixers in the postseason, they’ll be playing right into Philadelphia’s hand.

Of course, opposing coaches will probably know this, and instead, try to speed up the Sixers in an attempt to take them out of their comfort zone. The Warriors experienced this against the Memphis Grizzlies in the second-round last year, as that series reached a relatively breakneck pace of 101.1.

Unfortunately for them, the 76ers have proven that they’re capable of not only winning shootouts this season, but actually dominating them. According to statmuse, the Sixers have a 34-4 record whenever they eclipse their scoring average of 115 points per game.

The Philadelphia 76ers might not be on the odds-on favorite to emerge victorious this postseason, but one thing is for sure: no team will be able to take them out of a pace that they’re comfortable with.