Setting Tone for Home Stretch
The 76ers have played the majority of their schedule, but the 24 games that remain figure to be the most telling yet.
Going into last week’s All-Star Game break, the club was in a good place. At this stage of the year, their 37-21 record makes a top-five finish in the Eastern Conference realistic.
Only a substantial sea change in fortunes - either to the Sixers themselves, or the teams below them in the standings - would threaten to reroute this course.
As of Thursday morning, the Sixers sat 7.5 games in front of the Brooklyn Nets for sixth place, and still have a couple of match-ups left against three of the four squads ahead of them - fourth-place Boston (Mar. 29); third-place Indiana (Mar. 10); and first-place Milwaukee (Mar. 17, Apr. 4).
Also on the horizon are a handful of other presumably tough non-conference tests - a rematch at Oklahoma City (Feb. 28), another round against Golden State (Mar. 2), a visit to Houston (Mar. 8), and a gauntlet of 9 of 14 on the road to end the season.
Indeed, the Sixers’ eight-week post-All Star sprint doesn’t seem like it will be much of a slouch.
“I think you’re getting closer to playoff basketball, so you start to realize how important every possession is, and you start playing like how you want to play in the playoffs,” said Jimmy Butler, who’s been to the postseason in six of his seven years in the league.
He’s come to find that the intensity level usually picks up after the break, regardless of whether or not the team on the other side has a shot at qualifying for the playoffs.
“I don’t think any teams are trying to lose games. The five guys you put out there on the floor, they’re either going to try ruin someone’s chances or move up in the standings. Everybody’s going to still play to win, that’s for sure.”
Two-thirds of the way through the year, the Sixers have certainly built up a solid resume. In addition to the stellar won-loss record, they boast the NBA’s eighth-best net rating, at 3.5 (111.8 offrtg x 108.4 defrtg), and are one of the league’s most prolific and effective passing teams (no. 2 66.1 ast%).
Their free throw rate - both on makes and attempts per 100 possessions - ranks second-best overall, too.
Energizing to Brett Brown is that, on the heels of the Sixers’ February 6th trade with the LA Clippers that landed Tobias Harris, he’s essentially working on the third iteration of this season’s roster.
Brown said that for the home stretch, he plans to keep the messaging simple and straightforward with his group - what areas are most important to winning in the playoffs?
“The enthusiasm, the excitement for me coming back from the All-Star break is there actually is a newness I find exciting far more than intimidating,” Brown said Wednesday, when the Sixers regrouped in snow-blanketed Camden.
Earlier in the day, the organization announced Joel Embiid (left knee) and Furkan Korkmaz (right knee) will miss time. Embiid will be re-evaluated in one week, while Korkmaz is weighing his treatment options.
Specific to the 7-foot All-Star’s absence, Brown said he could see either Butler or fellow newcomer Harris assuming an increased scoring load. Harris is on track to reach the postseason for just the second time in his eight-year career.
“Here, the goal is to win in the playoffs, and win big,” said Harris, whose only postseason berth came in 2015-16 with Detroit, following a mid-season trade to the Pistons. “We’re trying to go for a championship here, we’re trying to get to a championship. So, that’s our mindset, that’s our goal as a team.
“To get there, it’s going to be a whole effort from every single person in the organization, so we have to use these [upcoming] games to really build even more chemistry. We have the right pieces to make things happen.”
Wednesday's practice was the first step. The push starts now.