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May 23, 2021

A 2021 Sixers playoff primer for the casual fan in your life

NBA Playoffs NBA
intro_Joel_Embiid_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is introduced before a home game.

Those of you who have been around and following these Sixers need no introduction to the No. 1 seed in the East. You have been glued to your TV, enjoying a terrific bounceback season, and (hopefully) reading my dispatches postgame, debating the ups and downs with yours truly and a legion of diehards locally and around the world.

But I am aware that doesn't represent the entirety of the audience who will tune in for the playoffs. Being a "four for four" fan is a badge of honor in this town, and it doesn't necessarily mean you're willing and able to pay equal attention to all four major franchises. And believe me, I know the NBA regular season is a slog. If you can't find it in you to watch this group every night they're on, you're probably just a little more sane than the rest of us. Hell, maybe you've just checked out of entertainment on TV because it's hard to stare at another screen in our Zoom-dominated world over the past year. I get it!

So for those of you who need something a little more barebones than the extensive playoff series preview we dropped Friday, here's a primer.

I hear Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate. What changed for him?

Embiid's major step forward has as much to do with the personnel around him as it does his personal growth. The Sixers hired a new President of Basketball Operations (Daryl Morey) and a new head coach (Doc Rivers) who combined to put Embiid in the best environment he has had in his career. The formula was simple but profound: more shooting on the floor with the big man, a setup that has produced great results.

The unseen hours, though, loomed large during his best-ever season. Embiid has been in better shape, worked on copying moves from greats like Dirk Nowitzki, and has learned to lead by example in both practice and game settings. He has learned (and was trusted) to operate from the middle of the floor, a change that has made doubling him tougher, and he has made quicker reads out of the post even if he hasn't been the guy credited with the eventual assist.

If not for a midseason injury that took him out of the lineup for weeks, Embiid would probably be the favorite for MVP. As it is, he's the best player on the best team (at least by record) in the Eastern Conference, and he has made the leap to the truly elite tier of the league. All that's left is to prove it in the playoffs.

Who are the new arrivals, and what have they brought to the table?

Doc Rivers is a name you've probably heard before, and his coaching staff have undoubtedly left their mark on this group. Players have raved about his ability to define roles and earn buy-in from his players, and they've made subtle changes schematically that have paid off. The Sixers mix up their coverages against pick-and-rolls, often bringing Embiid up higher and relying on weakside rotations instead of dropping him back toward the rim all game. The result was a leap on D — the Sixers finished with the second-best defense in the league, and if their attention to detail was better in transition, they might have been No. 1. 

The veteran role players all fit in nicely with the stars at the top. Dwight Howard has been a credible backup to Embiid and a surprisingly lovable goofball in the locker room. Seth Curry and Danny Green have opened up the floor with their shooting, and George Hill has looked like a solid, if unspectacular addition after coming on board at the deadline.

I heard Rivers made a difference for Tobias Harris. That true?

Absolutely. The new head coach demanded for Harris to be a more decisive player upon his arrival, and the speed of his decisionmaking has made all the difference in the world. Harris' three-point accuracy climbed closer to the desired 40 percent mark, he has finished at the rim with greater success, and he averaged a career high in assists per game, taking advantage of an offense that allowed him to hunt switches more. 

Philadelphia's formula for success on offense has often been predicated on Harris closing out games, taking over in the second half after Embiid runs roughshod for the first 24 minutes. His ability to dial it up in crunch time could be the difference between flaming out earlier than expected or making a real run at a title.

People seem split on Ben Simmons still? Is that fair?

Yes and no. Simmons is virtually the same player he has been since his rookie season on offense. He doesn't shoot threes, he doesn't hunt his shot as aggressively as most would like, and his ability to run efficient crunch-time offense remains suspect. This front office was willing to trade him to get James Harden, and they continued to look for high-level guards to add to the lineup right up to the deadline, ultimately tapping out of the Kyle Lowry sweepstakes.

On the other hand, Simmons has turned himself into one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball, a title he will compete for with teammate Matisse Thybulle. He generates threes for teammates at an elite clip, and he adds a level of pace to their game that they have desperately lacked whenever he hasn't been available.

This is a big playoff run for Simmons. His combination play with Embiid has been better than ever, and if they prove able to sustain that in a playoff setting, no doubt the Sixers will continue to tinker around that duo in the years to come. If his play inspires memories of the Boston series in 2018 or the Toronto series in 2019, however, he will be a hot name in the rumor mill this summer.

What (or who) could hold Philadelphia back from winning a title?

They're the No. 1 seed, so a lot of their problems are based on past failure and how it might rear its ugly head at the worst possible time. And that's not limited to the players — Rivers has a spotty playoff history littered with collapses and losses as the favorite in a series, a reputation he is looking to shake with Philadelphia.

Most of the unknown with the Sixers centers around how the Embiid/Simmons partnership will function when teams spend time and energy scheming for them in a seven-game series. Will Embiid have enough room to operate on the block? Can Simmons score enough to draw attention to himself as an off-ball player? Notably, their issues are pretty much all on offense, which I suppose is comforting on some level. If they can get enough stops, the rest doesn't matter.

Philadelphia's second unit is the X-factor in their title hopes. Rivers has leaned on all-bench groups all season, something that got him in trouble with the Clippers and has continued to torture fans in Philadelphia. Their lineup combinations off of the bench are the source of some uncertainty — Shake Milton has been the lead ballhandler for that group all year, but the emergence of rookie Tyrese Maxey and the acquisition of George Hill could change what we think we know about the backups. And Matisse Thybulle is perhaps the greatest swing piece of all, a manic defender who could either be essential to their plans or buried on the bench due to teams ignoring him beyond the arc.

Tell me about their first-round opponent

The Wizards have one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA, featuring sweet scoring Bradley Beal and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook. Both players have put up big numbers against Philly over the years, but the state of the rest of the team has prevented Washington from challenging the Sixers too hard this season. The regular season series ended with a 3-0 Philly sweep.

Embiid should feast against this group, with most of their options either too slow (Alex Len) or too small (Daniel Gafford) to stop him from going off. Washington has also stumbled into a guard-heavy lineup late in the year, making this prime territory for a big Tobias Harris series. The Wiz are small and bad on defense, liable to fall victim to relentless switch-forcing when the Sixers need to stop a run and get buckets.

They're feisty, but very beatable. Philly shouldn't need the full seven games to get this done.

Should I start planning for the parade?

I won't be a Debbie Downer. The Sixers certainly have a real chance to compete for a title this year. But they are behind in Vegas for logical reasons — at FanDuel, they're currently tied for fifth overall at +800, according to Pickswise — even if they've put themselves in ideal position to get out of the East. Philadelphia will likely play the winner of a Brooklyn-Milwaukee round two battle should they reach the Conference Finals — and they should, based on the draw they got — and there are matchup problems with both of those groups.

The good news? Embiid is a matchup nightmare for everyone this year, but especially the Nets, who have taken to downsizing and going small fairly often down the stretch. They will have no such luxury against the Sixers, who would take that opportunity to use the Embiid sledgehammer inside.

My best advice is to make sure you enjoy yourself during this run, even if your time with time is shorter than the diehards. Sixers teams this good haven't come around that often, and you should certainly savor it. 

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