Game Preview | Familiarity, Continuity Driving Strong Stretch Before Break
Going into a highly anticipated 2017-2018 season, the 76ers had a plan: take a nucleus loaded with promising, youthful talent, and augment it with sensible, accomplished veteran investments.
So far, as the Sixers surge towards the NBA’s annual All-Star Game break, it would be hard to argue with the results.
Readying for their 58th game of the season Wednesday night, and a significant one at that against fellow playoff contender Miami (7:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), the Sixers had won 29 times, a number that already exceeds last year’s total by one.
Furthermore, the Sixers have assured themselves a winning record at the All-Star break of an 82-game season for the first time since 2008-2009. At the start of the day Wednesday, they held seventh-place in the Eastern Conference standings, one half game in front of the Heat, but just two games behind fourth-place Milwaukee.
For a team that not only publicly declared its season-long mission Day 1 of training camp, but has since fully embraced the challenge of attaining it, a path to the franchise’s first playoff berth in six years has been realistically paved.
A multitude of factors can be attributed to the encouraging success the Sixers have enjoyed up to this point. As productive, difference-making individual pieces have moved along a positive developmental path, the club itself has reaped the collective rewards.
The Sixers’ offense, for starters, has made tremendous strides relative to seasons past, with their offensive rating of 105.4 points per 100 possessions ranking 14th overall as of Wednesday. Their defense, which has been Brett Brown’s primary area of focus since joining the Sixers in 2013, was third-best in the league, at 102.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Add up those two figures, and you’ve got a net rating of 2.9, which is currently seventh on the NBA chart, and third among Eastern Conference teams.
Underscoring the undeniable progress the Sixers have so far achieved, however, is an ingredient that goes beyond measurables. If you’ve watched the team the past week or so, you’ve probably seen it for yourself.
The Sixers - from explosive starts, to a modest reduction in turnovers, to tightening defensive rotations, to recent strong finishes - are clicking, plain and simple. For that, there is personnel continuity to thank.
As the season has gone along, and Brown’s rotations have settled into place, players have had the chance to become more and more familiar with one another. The chemistry is paying dividends.
“It’s just playing with each other more [that’s] really helped us,” said Robert Covington, who’s logged more appearances in a Sixers uniform than any other member of the roster. “We have a unit that’s very strong. We have a lot of people that can do a lot of different things.”
Covington and the rest of the Sixers’ starters have combined to create a particularly excellent, and efficient, fit. Among five-man line-ups that have logged at least 30 games together, the Sixers’ top group - which consists of Covington, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid - has generated the best net rating in the league, at 19.5.
From the Sixers’ reserve corps, valuable contributors have emerged, too. T.J. McConnell, he of triple-double fame, is in the midst of a career campaign. Amir Johnson, meanwhile, has proven to be a dependable, steady old head.
Midway through his 13th year in the NBA, the sage center can spot effective chemistry when he sees it.
“I think we’re starting to click well,” Johnson said. “We’ve been home for a week now. We’re definitely locked in, just finishing out these games for All-Star break, and things are just starting to click for us.”
And not only in respect to how the Sixers are competing on the court. Their togetherness carries into other settings as well, such as film sessions, where Johnson and Redick, to no surprise, are vocal participants. Boasting reputations as established, savvy players, Johnson and Redick rely on their observations and perspective to teach, not criticize with malicious intent.
This dynamic is just one example of how accountability - an important element for any team - has seeped into the environment surrounding the Sixers.
“I don’t think guys have a vendetta or have a big ego on this team,” said Johnson. “There’s one goal, and it’s been said not even at the beginning of the season, but during summer time, which is to make the playoffs. That’s pretty much what guys are focused on - making the playoffs, and just winning games.”
That latter part is something the Sixers have been doing quite regularly as of late. Should they keep it up, the post-season part of the equation should take care of itself.
For as much momentum as the Sixers have positioned themselves to bring into the break, the Miami Heat (30-27) find themselves in an opposite spot, heading into Wednesday’s noteworthy Eastern Conference clash having dropped six of their past seven games, and eight of 11 overall. One of the defeats Miami suffered during this rut was a Feb. 2nd 103-97 setback at the hands of the Sixers. That night, Joel Embiid got the better of fellow big man Hassan Whiteside, outscoring him 17-4, and outrebounding him 11-9. Since that meeting, the Heat decided to bring back franchise icon Dwyane Wade via a deal at last Thursday’s deadline. In the second appearance of his second stint with Miami in Tuesday’s 115-112 loss at Toronto, the 12-time All-Star generated a double-double, posting 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists. As of Wednesday morning, the Sixers sat one half game ahead of the Heat for seventh-place in the East.
• Video: NBC Sports Philadelphia / NBC Sports app
• Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network