April 07, 2019
After all the complaining, all the concern-trolling, all the miserable games of the last couple of weeks, it turns out the Sixers were not doomed after all. Following Boston's loss to the Orlando Magic on Sunday night, the Sixers locked up the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference for the second year in a row, dodging a date with the Indiana Pacers in the first round.
Philadelphia has not earned a top-three seed in consecutive seasons since their run of success in the mid 1980's, and while some will be concerned about the frisky opponents they could face in the first round, it's again worth noting that this is, without qualification, the best period of Sixers basketball in decades. Damning with faint praise, but true nonetheless.
With two games left in the regular season and nothing left to play for, the Sixers can turn their sights to the playoffs. A wisecrack would point out the team did this weeks ago, and fair enough, but there are still some levers to pull and decisions to make prior to their first postseason game this Saturday. Let's run through them.
This sounds like an obvious decision. I'm not sure the Sixers view it the same way, but we will find out in the days to come.
There are some complicating factors here. Personally, I believe Joel Embiid should not see the floor until Saturday, because no amount of fatigue he could pick up over this week would be worth exposing him to injury risk in games that mean absolutely nothing. Any chance they have of making a Finals run rests on his shoulders, and while you want him to be in the best shape possible, it's more important that he's actually available to play.
But Brett Brown seemed to leave the door open to Embiid playing when asked about the topic following Saturday's win over the Bulls. The coach's explanation centered around feedback he has received from Embiid himself.
“He would tell you that his fitness base is probably a C+," Brown said on Saturday night. "You could sit him and rest him for the playoffs. But he’s smart enough, he understands his body better than any of us, that that’s probably not what his body needs. He needs to get in shape and keep pointing the needle towards being at a premium, having a premium fitness base, and that will take some time."
I don't know if I really buy that he can get that out of shape in such a small period of time, but Embiid has been pretty consistent about this fact when he has spoken about it publicly, so you have to take the big fella's word for it.
The other semi-interesting name for me is JJ Redick, who in theory could use a rest as much as anyone on the team. With the Sixers closing the year out on a back-to-back, I suspect he'll get at least one of those nights off. That said, he is on an absolute tear right now, and when shots are dropping like they are at the moment, you almost want to keep him on the floor as much as possible.
I think Redick would welcome the time off. As he noted following a recent practice, his own career has examples of hot streaks for entire teams not mattering once the playoffs start. The 2009 Magic had to get by with a player they acquired at the deadline (Rafer Alston) replacing an injured Jameer Nelson at point guard in 2009, yet they made a surprising Finals run. The 2010 Magic went 19-3 from March 1st onward and then swept the first two rounds of the playoffs, only to get bounced in six games by Boston in the Conference Finals.
In other words, don't expect Redick or the team to care about his brief hot streak.
Elsewhere, the decisions are easier. Jimmy Butler's gimpy back should be given the week off, and the Sixers should get at least a night off for Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. Any time they can spend prepping for the playoffs is more valuable than these last two games.
The only reason to play your stars any minutes over the next two games is to see what a few of your role players look like alongside him.
Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to reopen the bench tournament.
That means you're probably going to have to live with some minutes from Jonathon Simmons against the Heat and Bulls this week. Tragic, I know, but these last two games are all about fact-finding now.
The Heat game on Tuesday night is actually a decent opportunity to learn something about the healthy players left on your bench. Until James Ennis returns, the Sixers are short on guys, and someone is going to have to emerge from the ether.
Brown has given Shake Milton and Zhaire Smith the bulk of the backup wing minutes the last few games, despite making a stink about the former not being playoff eligible and the latter being quite green around the gills. Miami needs some help to squeak into the playoffs, but they have everything to play for, and they will challenge the rookies to the benefit of the Sixers.
My stance here is not going to change based on what we see against Miami and Chicago, and with shortened rotations, it almost doesn't matter who the Sixers decide to play in those minutes anyway. Philly's heavy hitters are more than equipped to win a first-round series without much bench help, and James Ennis should be back to stabilize things by round two.
The hope would be that you continue to see solid defensive flashes from Smith, because if you can get him a taste of the playoffs to end the year it's much better than giving those minutes to Simmons, who doesn't figure to be part of their long-term plans.
For the players who don't need to play the next couple of nights, there's still plenty to do before Saturday's playoff opener. Step number one would be to use the week for some internal reflection, improving what you do even if you don't know your opponent yet.
Going through some tape together will undoubtedly be part of their pre-playoff process, and some open dialogue between the team's most important players can't hurt, either. We've seen little wrinkles emerge in the Sixers' playbook, like the improvement of the lob connection between Embiid and Simmons, and a little more practice time to work on wrinkles this week should help everybody.
It also couldn't hurt for the Sixers to spend a little time together away from the court this week, strengthening their bonds before they are tested in the playoffs. Adversity on Saturday will look and feel a lot different than it has all season, and the closer they feel to one another, the less likely they are to panic or lash out when times are tough.
The Sixers don't have to be a team full of best friends to make a deep run. But communal bonds are important when best-laid plans are stretched to the limit in the postseason.
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