Playoffs 2019 East First Round: 76ers (3) vs. Nets (6)

Revamped 76ers remain optimistic despite lack of time together

With win-now approach, Philadelphia star core needs to show its potential in these playoffs

Ten games.

That’s it.

That’s the grand total of the Philadelphia 76ers’ pre-playoff sample size they had to work with in evaluating the strengths and weakness of their revamped, all-in roster that enters this postseason with championship-level expectations.

Ten games.

Eight wins and two losses, both to the hated Boston Celtics, is all we have to go on for a team that will dive into a first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets with an internal Finals-or-bust edict, due to the quick-change potion sprinkled on the roster when they traded for both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in a three-month stretch that accelerated the game plan dramatically.

These playoffs loom larger in Philadelphia than perhaps anywhere else in the Eastern Conference because the Sixers are on the clock now with Butler, Harris and J.J. Redick headed for free agency this summer.

Stumble in this postseason and “The Process” doesn’t look so shiny anymore, even with All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons locked in for the foreseeable future.

“The [playoff environment] is a stark difference. The intensity ratchets up, the physicality is different,” Sixers general manager Elton Brand told reporters earlier this week. “Star players win in the playoffs. And that’s what we’re built for.”

There’s no doubt the Sixers have the most top-heavy starting five of any team in the Eastern Conference playoff field; the Golden State Warriors being the only team in the league capable of producing a more formidable first five.

But no one is exactly sure if Embiid is even physically ready for Game 1 against the Nets. Brand and Sixers coach Brett Brown have given mixed signals as to whether the self-proclaimed “most unstoppable” player in the league is going to be there at opening tip of the most important postseason in recent franchise history.

(Embiid manhandled the Nets during their four regular-season matchups, by the way, averaging 30.0 points on 60 percent shooting to go with 14.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists.)

The Sixers went 8-10 without Embiid in the lineup this season and the uncertainty of his status is just one more reason fans in Philadelphia are right to be cautiously optimistic heading into this first-round series.

And yet, a healthy Embiid is also the reason for all the optimism from Brand, who knows that having the most dominant physical presence in the entire league can be the difference between an early postseason exit and a potential run to The Finals.

“I’m confident in this group,” Brand said. “I think we’re going to show up well when those bright lights come on.”

With Embiid on the floor, the Sixers are an elite defensive outfit, a group capable of beating any team with that stacked starting unit’s combination of length, versatility, skill and superstar power. But he missed 14 of the Sixers’ final 24 games after All-Star Weekend with “load management.”

“None of us should expect anything greater than a B,” Brown said, assigning a letter grade to what should be expected from Embiid physically, given all of the actual game time missed. “While I think he’s doing some good work behind the scenes, there’s nothing like playing basketball to get in shape to play basketball. And I think that over the course of a series we have to make sure that he’s able to sustain that. To go out and play one game and then go away for a few days is a lot easier than backing stuff up. And I think that’s where we’ll learn a lot.”

Which brings us back to those 10 games, and perhaps more importantly those eight wins in those 10 games that Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Harris and Redick played in together.

Five of those wins came against playoff teams (Denver, Indiana, Milwaukee, Boston and Brooklyn) and a sixth was against a LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers bunch that was still in the Western Conference playoff chase at the time.

That snapshot of what these guys are capable of might help explain Brand’s confidence. And since he’s been in charge of the altered vision for this team, he has every right to stoke that fire heading into this most critical of postseasons.

That same 10 games, however, and the limited nature of that sample size, is the reason Brown is a bit more measured in his understanding of what it all means for the Sixers’ ultimate bottom line.

“The 10 games that we have played together as stars,” Brown said, “I wished it was significantly more. And so to say, ‘we’re all prepared, we’re ready to go.’ That shouldn’t [be said] and isn’t true. I’m not crying about that. The good news is we have talent. And so we’re hoping to jump into the playoffs, find the wave and ride the current and continue to play good basketball.

“But to suggest we’ve had a season’s worth of preparation is really just factually wrong, in fact just grossly wrong as we can hear by the numbers. And so we will take what we have and I’m excited to take what we have and the mystery kind of remains … we really haven’t played a ton of basketball together.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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