The learning curve of the Philadelphia 76ers has taken on a new, more direct and simpler geometric shape. It’s now a straight line, pulled and yanked that way by an impatient team determined to take the expressway from now on.
And so this is where The Process has led them, to the NBA playoffs, a place exclusively reserved for Big Boy Basketball, where we get to see if the Sixers will skip another floor in their rapid developmental rise or if youth is about to get served a lesson.
Hey, if nothing else, it beats wiping away the stench of losing, which is what coach Brett Brown was doing this time the last few years before this club finally grew up and as we now see, blew up.
"This year we exceeded 50 wins and when you do that, you get into NBA elite territory which is something different for us,” he said. “But what’s interesting is we want more. We have more room to grow and we want to do that now.”
Yes, the Sixers, finally sprung free of the dark ages, have crashed the annual spring show and are doing so rather emphatically in addition to surprisingly. Surely you saw this coming this quickly, no? On Christmas Eve they were 14-18. Their sensational big man, Joel Embiid, was getting the kid glove treatment, rarely playing extended minutes or consecutive games because of his brittle injury history. Their top draft pick, Markelle Fultz, was out with a bad shoulder and a broken jumper. Obviously, they’d just emerged from their four years of Tankapalooza with the trepidation of a chick stumbling from the nest. And quite simply, four months ago they just weren’t good enough to be lumped with the lead pack. Yet.
What’s interesting is we want more. We have more room to grow and we want to do that now.
But since then, what the hell just happened?
“This group has come together from a toughness standpoint, a spirit standpoint,” Brown said.
To say the least. The Sixers are 50-game winners, with a strong Kia Rookie of the Year candidate in Ben Simmons and a top-10 talent in Embiid, whose orbital injury that cost him the final eight regular season games should be healed for the playoffs at some point. Everything has fallen into place to make Philly a basketball destination once again, and these Sixers find themselves in a unique situation heading into the weekend.
That’s because the playoff landscape in the East is favorable for someone like Philly to pull a surprise or two. Can they last a round? Of course; they’ll be a favorite initially. How about reaching the Eastern Conference finals? That’s trickier, and it’ll come down to matchups, but stranger things have happened. And, the NBA Finals? Well.
Consider that there’s no true beast taking up space in the East and sending shivers everywhere. All of the contenders are showing a scratch or two: Toronto brings a blah playoff history; some of LeBron James’ supporting cast in Cleveland is untested; the Celtics are without Kyrie Irving, not to mention Gordon Hayward.
The Sixers are the wild card in the playoff picture. Their wart is their inexperience in these matters. And so: Are they too young to be taken seriously?
“I understand why people might think that, but I think we’ll be fine,” said JJ Redick, the resident senior citizen at age 33. “I don’t expect any of us to play differently than we have lately. These young guys are all gamers.”
The Sixers are uniquely built; their twin core of Simmons and Embiid has played a combined three NBA seasons. Redick is the only starter with playoff experience and is also the only player in the rotation who ever played a major role in the playoffs. The Sixers are cubs compared to most of the East, even those teams below them. Essentially, the veterans on the Sixers orbit around the youngsters, instead of vice versa.
Brown regularly takes the temperature of his players and has yet to pause at the results he’s seeing. For the most part, this has worked out better than he and they expected.
“At this stage you figure how you deliver a team to the playoffs, how do you arrive at the playoffs,” Brown said. “Well, you can check three boxes: Their health, their spirit and their form. And finally: Are they playing good basketball? They’re all very interconnected, they’re all closely intertwined. Those things rule my day when I watch film and see how hard and long we’re going to go in practice. These guys have embraced and improved in those areas. Our defense has been excellent and we’re regularly getting 30 assists as a team, another example of a team enjoying each other’s company.”
This makes for an interesting postseason baptism. There’s hope in Philly that Simmons and Embiid and Robert Covington and Dario Saric won’t know the difference between March basketball and May basketball.
“We’ll just come and play the same way we’ve been doing,” Simmons said.
The other advantage for Philly is Simmons appears well beyond his years. His expression is stoic, no matter the game circumstances, and his poise has yet to shatter memorably and cost the Sixers when it counts. He’s giving 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists a night and had at least 10 points, five rebounds and five assists in 58 games, second only to Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. He is the first rookie in NBA history to average eight assists on a 50-win team. It remains to be seen how a 56-percent free throw shooter will respond if he’s put in that situation with the game on the line. Otherwise, his court direction and ability to reach the rim should not suffer from springtime stage fright.
“Ben sits behind a glass wall and watches everyone else on the other side,” Redick said. “There’s nothing that affects him. He plays with the same demeanor and purpose no matter what’s going on around him. He brings a calm presence, and the maturity he plays with is beyond his years. Impressive.”
Brown said: “He’s the stone cold Rookie of the Year and to me it’s not even close.”
Philly’s best player is Embiid, though, and he’ll play with a mask once he does return, perhaps sometime in the first round. If he doesn’t suffer any lasting effects from the facial injury (vision, lack of balance), he’ll be the premier big man on the floor in the East. This allows the Sixers to exploit their low-post advantage over the Celtics, Raptors and Cavs should Philly meet any of those contenders along the way.
The Sixers are also working with a pair of bonuses in Fultz and Ersan Ilyasova, two players they didn’t anticipate being in the playoff mix just a few months ago. Fultz is finally free of his shoulder woes and his shooting is starting to come around, to the point where Brown says he’ll find a role for Fultz in the rotation. Basically, the Sixers feel safe enough to put him on the floor, something that would’ve been a reach before he was activated, when he showed a nasty mechanical hitch in a jumper that somehow went south on him.
“We don’t feel we’re going to be caught off guard with him,” Brown said.
Ilyasova was gift-wrapped to Philly by the Hawks at midseason and has since been a solid source of scoring (17 points in a two-point win over Cleveland last week) and deepened the Sixers’ bench, allowing Brown to use a variety of different lineups and strategies.
In all, the manner in which the season has come together is paying off at the right time for Philly.
“We didn’t have this level of maturity in November and December,” Redick said. “If you look at some of our losses early in the season I felt they were immature losses. We’re more focused, more together, developed a mental toughness. Sometimes in life and in this league you have to go through things and experience things to grasp how to do them. There’s no better learning tool than the actual experience. So blowing a lead or coming back from a large halftime deficit, you have to do those things to understand that you can do it. Having those lessons early in the season has prepared us to have a great run since Christmas; we have the second best record in the league since then. This is better than what I expected or even hoped for. It’s been a long sustained growth period.”
What does it all mean? Well, even though they’re entering the playoffs with the force of a hurricane, this isn’t the NCAA tournament. This is best-of-seven basketball, which means a team must prove itself worthy of moving on, instead of hoping to get lucky or hot. In the case of Philly and others in the East, that means beating LeBron four times in a series, and that hasn’t happened since 2010.
You could also make the case the Sixers are playing with house money at this point, no matter what happens; after enduring The Process and painful progress, this is a blessing, a reward.
The Sixers aren’t seeing it that way, though, not after growing up in a hurry. They want to seize the opportunity now, and any playoff success will largely depend on how they handle this as first-timers. Your guess is as good as Brown’s.
“You really don’t know what to expect,” Brown said. “There’s no body of work. I will give our guys the benefit of the doubt. The poise they have shown in the regular season, the poise they’ve shown in big games and key moments, gives me tremendous confidence that we will handle this stage with a greater level of poise than what I might have guessed in October, or what I might have guessed not so long ago if you asked me questions about how will rookies and young guys handle this very different part of the season.”
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