March 23, 2018
There is no team in the league with a friendlier closing schedule than the Sixers, and they've been taking advantage of the good fortune of late. Winners of five straight, Philadelphia has surged up to No. 4 in the Eastern Conference with 11 games left to play, sitting in the driver's seat for homecourt advantage in the first round.
Priorities have changed: Joel Embiid declared he wants 50 wins after a win over Orlando on Thursday, and the goal is surprisingly attainable.
But a new development may have upped the stakes even more. Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, who has been out of the lineup and dealing with knee soreness for the last two weeks, is expected to have a "minimally invasive procedure" on Saturday to deal with the problem in his left knee. Prior reports out of Boston suggested screws in his knee from a previous surgery were the cause of the problem.
It's not yet clear what the timetable will be for his return, but even a minor procedure is a big deal at this stage of the season. If Irving and the Celtics are resorting to this route after two weeks of prior rest — he last played in the first half of Boston's loss to Indiana on Sunday, March 11 — it suggests that simple pain management is not an option for the amount of season left to play. Irving initially indicated he was dealing with the problem following a loss to the Houston Rockets on March 3.
So what does this mean for the Sixers? A whole lot, really. With those 11 games left to play, the Eastern Conference standings look like this:
Regardless of Irving's injury, those top two seeds are basically set in stone. The cushion created by Boston's early-season play will be enough to keep late closers at bay even if the Celtics continue to play up-and-down basketball in the absence of their primary initiator.
But the uncertainty surrounding Irving makes the race for the No. 3 seed that much more critical for a team looking to make a surprise Eastern Conference Finals appearance. You could apply this to all three of the Wizards, Pacers, and Sixers but there is now an increased urgency to buckle down and make a late push in the standings.
If Philadelphia were to end up in the spot they are now, they still have every right to believe they can advance against any of their likely opponents. They split a season series with Washington and fell 2-1 to the Pacers, and have enough firepower to beat both in a seven-game set.
The stakes for a second-round matchup are higher. Assuming seedings hold and everyone takes care of business in the first round, it would be tough to pick the Sixers to beat the Raptors in a seven-game series. Toronto has shriveled in big moments in the past, but this year's squad has revamped their system and embraced a modern style of basketball, all while improving their bench. They would be prohibitive favorites against the Sixers, and rightfully so.
If the Sixers can make a push for the No. 3 seed, they would put themselves on Boston's side of the bracket, as the Celtics deal with various health issues and uncertainty down the stretch. Even if Irving is back on the court in short order, there's still the matter of getting his legs back under him and reintegrating his iso-heavy offense into a team forced to create collectively in his absence.
With a healthy Irving, the safe money would be on Boston to advance. It's a different story if he's banged up or not in the lineup at all; Ben Simmons and Robert Covington would have an easier time passing the assignment back and forth if Irving is in any diminished state, and the onus to create would then be forced onto either Al Horford or one of Boston's young players. The former is not the sort of player to put an offense on his back — and he'll be matched up with Joel Embiid — and the latter is a dicey proposition for any team, including the Sixers.
This doesn't doom Boston either way, of course. Brad Stevens is one of the best coaches in the league, and he has consistently made things work with ill-fitting parts or players whose major weaknesses have been masked. Of course, that has predominantly been true on the defensive end — Boston still owns a below-average offense at No. 17 in the league, and their offensive efficiency drops over eight points per 100 possessions when Irving is off the floor.
In simpler terms, the difference between playing Toronto and Boston is vast. The former is a top-five unit on both ends of the court, while the latter has an elite defense and an offense that struggles without a currently injured player. If the choice is between a rock fight with the Celtics and an artillery battle with Toronto, you'd lean toward the former every single time.
We'll have to wait and see just how serious the procedure is, and in the event of a quick return Irving might be able to get himself up and running by the time a second-round series hits anyway. And, of course, the Sixers would actually need to win a series for this to matter, which is a tall task for a team whose best players have never sniffed the postseason before.
Even still, the stakes are clear here. Just one game back of Cleveland and with a final meeting looming on April 6, the Sixers have a huge reason to go all out to steal the No. 3 seed in the season's final weeks. We'll see if they have the consistency and commitment to do so.
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