The Philadelphia 76ers stumbled their way into the playoffs and somehow still found themselves in a great position as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The team has seen plenty of change as the season progressed, starting with the Jimmy Butler trade, then the Tobias Harris trade, then first-round pick Zhaire Smith returning, all wrapped up in some gastroenteritis, injuries, load management, and whatever else you can think of.
This team is loaded with question marks. Did teams learn how to handle Ben Simmons after last year’s Boston series? Is Joel Embiid healthy? Was Jimmy Butler coasting or has he really just lost a step? Will teams isolate JJ Redick on defense every possession possible?
It’s very hard to pinpoint the expectations of this Sixers team, making their first round bout one to keep an eye on.
The Sixers’ first round matchup is a Brooklyn Nets team that has shown signs of brilliance this season, punching their way to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The season series between these two is split at 2-2, but the current iteration of the Sixers only got to play Brooklyn one time, a 123-110 victory with all five members of their starting lineup actually playing together.
A team with Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler on defense should not be allowing opposing guards to take advantage of them much — but that’s exactly what’s happening. Especially this Nets team. In four games, D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie are each averaging over 20 points and Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris are each shooting 61% and 55%, respectively, from three against Philly.
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) December 13, 2018
We all know the Nets’ guards are good, but boy do they play at a different level when the Sixers are in the building. Spencer Dinwiddie in particular has had a rough end to the season, so it will be interesting to see whether he finds his groove again or continues to fall flat.
The Sixers have a clear advantage with Joel Embiid on Jarrett Allen, despite Allen’s impressive season. Allen’s inability to stretch the floor grants Embiid room to stay at home without running around trying to keep up with a shooting big and protecting the paint all at once. This is especially important with how much of a mystery Embiid’s injury is that could cost him a game or two.
It deserves to be said, though – hobbled or not, Joel Embiid is going to get his.
Game 1: @76ers – Saturday, 4/13 – 2:30 PM
Game 2: @76ers – Monday, 4/15 – 8:00 PM
Game 3: @Nets – Thursday, 4/18 – 8:00 PM
Game 4: @Nets – Saturday, 4/20 – 3:00 PM
Game 5 (if needed): – Tuesday, 4/23 – TBD
Game 6 (if needed): – Thursday 4/25 – TBD
Game 7 (if needed): Saturday 4/27 – TBD
*times in EST
How can they succeed?
The Sixers’ biggest obstacles are their health and chemistry. Down the stretch, Philly played almost no games together and their new and improved starting lineup has not gotten the reps to prove that they are undoubtedly the second-best starting five in the league that many proclaimed.
When they have played, however, the team is 8-2 with wins against Denver, Indiana, Milwaukee, Boston, and Brooklyn. Not too bad for a team that doesn’t even know each other’s tendencies.
The problem though is that this lineup has been on the roster since February 8th and they have played just 10 games together, including none since March 28th. This team was unable to stay healthy for much of the season, with the most important being Embiid’s knee which is still not right. None of the Sixers’ starting five are expendable, but if you were to pick one player who can keep the team afloat despite other injuries, it’s JoJo.
They undoubtedly have the talent to beat anyone in the league but chemistry and health cannot be overlooked and could end up causing this team’s demise.
Joel Embiid might be the best player on the team, but Jimmy Butler is the most important. The Sixers struggled mightily against Boston in last season’s playoffs because they had no one on the team to close out close games. Well, Butler is now that guy. Butler hit two game-winners very shortly after his trade to the Sixers and showed everything they hoped for when they got him.
34 points (18 in the 4th) and the game-winner. Jimmy Butler continues to play hero for the 76ers. pic.twitter.com/bESWARpvV5
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) November 26, 2018
But he’s not always there. We’ve seen plenty of bad games from Jimmy throughout the season but it’s tough to say what caused them. A guy who was once an All-NBA defender looks slow and lazy at times and his jumper doesn’t always fall like you’d hope. You could be concerned that he’s lost a step but there are so many flashes of brilliance that it’s hard to say it with certainty.
The most logical answer is that Butler coasted hard because he knew his team was good enough to both make the playoffs and be one of the top teams without him needing to carry like some of his Bulls and Timberwolves rosters. Butler looked like a brand new player when the clock struck 5:00 in the 4th quarter many times this season, giving some evidence to the coasting theory, but nothing is a guarantee.
Jimmy Butler absolutely must be the go-to bucket getter for this roster when it’s needed most. If he looks anything like the Jimmy Butler of old, this Sixers team is a true threat to win the East. If not, this big five could go up in flames.
One positive stat in their favor:
Like I mentioned earlier, no matter what chaos ensued this season, the starting five of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid were 8-2 in games they played together including 5-1 against playoff teams. The team was that good with a bad bench, tons of lineup instability, and hardly any time together.
Imagine if they find their rhythm against Brooklyn and look like the feared roster that was touted on the cover of Sports Illustrated?
No one in the East will want to play them.