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June 10, 2021

What they're saying: Joel Embiid's motivation, 'The Process' on trial and Damian Lillard to the Sixers?

Sixers NBA

The last time the 76ers advanced past the second round of a playoff series was 20 years ago. After bouncing back from a shocking loss to start their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Atlanta Hawks, the Sixers tied things up at 1-1 Tuesday night on the heels of a dominating Joel Embiid effort and some other killer performances.

Philadelphia now needs to win three of the next five games, and at least one in Atlanta, if they want to have a chance at playing (we assume) an intimidating Brooklyn Nets team in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Some very entertaining basketball has been taking place as the Sixers try and justify 'The Process,' and all eyes are on them as Game 3 approaches in Atlanta on Friday. Which is exactly where we'll kick off our latest edition of "what they're saying" about the Sixers:

Central processing

Derek Parker | Sports Illustrated

There is a lot more at stake than just a deep playoff run for the Sixers this postseason. With teams like the Rockets and Thunder actively tanking away their seasons, there is an enormous amount of interest in whether Sam Hinkie's vision will manifest in a championship for Philly. If they succeed, tanking will become an even more ubiquitous part of the NBA every year.

Fast-forwarding several years past plenty of junk and player swapping, the current Sixers have the MVP and DPOY runner-ups, a solid core of role players, and are three wins away from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.

There’s one main focal point for OKC to pull from.

Philadelphia hit on less than 50 percent of their first round draft picks and still compiled a contending team. Had any or all of Okafor, Fultz or sixth overall pick Noel panned out, we could be looking at the middle of a long stretch of championships for Philly.

Oklahoma City could find itself in a similar stretch very soon, and should it finish with a higher success rate in the draft than the Sixers, could find itself in championship reach sooner than expected. []

The Dame Game

Kevin McCormick | Sports Illustrated

Before we dive into the actual players on the Sixers' roster, it seems as though Philadelphia just can't escape being included in every single rumor there is, across every major sport. With the Blazers' early playoff exit, some are wondering if Damian Lillard will want to return to Portland. Apparently, without much thought as to how in the heck they can even afford to bring him in, sportsbooks are projecting that Philly would be in the mix, should Dame be on the move. Hmm...

While there has been no official report of the team shopping Lillard or him wanting out, betting odds have opened on who his next team could be. Among's current favorites, the Sixers sit with the second-best odds. 

The New York Knicks currently with the best odds at +250, but the Sixers are not far behind at +275. Other teams favored include the Heat, Celtics, Lakers, and Clippers. 

With Daryl Morey running the Sixers' front office now, these odds seemed based on reputation. Morey has never shied away from a big move and will most certainly poke around if Lillard becomes available.

It is also worth noting that the Sixers were one of the last teams standing in both the James Harden and Kyle Lowry trade talks. 

The Sixers still find themselves in the middle of a postseason run. Making it way too soon to be talking about offseason deals. With that being said, it is still rather fascinating that the Sixers are among one of the top potential landing spots for Lillard.  []

The real prize

Dan Devine | The Ringer

Okay, enough of that. Joel Embiid has gone off for 79 points and an absurd .708 true shooting percentage through two games this series – on a partially-torn meniscus. We will debate whether this is one of the most impressive performances in NBA history in just a second, but it is undeniable that Embiid has a focus and motivation to do whatever he can to help the Sixers win. Is it because he was passed over for MVP due mostly to his suiting up for less games this season than Nikola Jokic?

That’s Embiid: irrepressible and unstoppable, unwilling to accept disrespect without dishing more than his fair share back out, extremely willing to accept the challenge of crushing your finely tuned defense into fish-tank gravel, and capable of completely commanding the game on both ends of the court. It’s what made him such a compelling MVP candidate, even as he missed 21 games due to various injuries; it’s what makes him such a breathtaking watch, as he tries to lift Philadelphia to its first conference finals berth in 20 years, and its first championship in nearly 40.


They’ll be able to count on Embiid, though. He’s the engine behind a starting five that’s scoring a scorching 139.4 points per 100 possessions through two games, and the back-line anchor of a defense good enough to tamp down a talented Hawks team that had been flying high entering Tuesday; I’m not sure any player makes a bigger impact for his team on both ends of the floor every night. This, of course, was the crux of the argument for Embiid winning MVP. It wasn’t enough to earn him that trophy. A few more performances like this, though, could earn him the chance to play for the one he wants even more. [The Ringer]

Postseason history

David Murphy | Philadelphia Inquirer

Embiid has played six games so far this postseason. The following stats are courtesy of Murphy, whose story we will quote in a bit. The following are based on all of NBA playoff history:

•37.5 points per 36 minutes, the most ever

•.708 true shooting percentage, the highest ever

• +/- of +27.7, the highest ever

We'll see if he can keep it up.

When Embiid was on the court in the 2018-19 postseason, the Sixers outscored opponents by more points than the Warriors did with any of the members of one of the greatest collections of basketball talent ever assembled.

Consider all of these things together, and a compelling picture begins to emerge. Through six games, Embiid is playing at a historic pace on the offensive end of the court. And he might be even better on the defensive end. Other than plus-minus and on-off splits, there aren’t a lot of ways to even attempt to quantify individual defensive performance, particularly for a rim protector like Embiid. But we may eventually have to figure one out if the Sixers’ postseason extends beyond the current round. Because, right now, Embiid is on pace to put together a postseason that demands a full and thorough accounting. []

The other Curry

Marcus Thompson II | The Athletic

We don't want to spoil too much of a fantastic and super in-depth piece on Seth Curry by Thompson over at The Athletic, but it really is remarkable to consider just how important Curry has become to the Sixers' playoff success this year. From looking sluggish and uninspired after getting COVID-19, to being automatic with open threes in crunch time, Curry has overcome quite a bit to get to this point — including his family name.

Curry now has 72 points in his last three playoff games. He’s made 13 of his last 21 from deep and is plus-40 in 96 minutes of action over those last three games. He is the only player in the tracking data era to have hit more than 50 percent of his “wide open” 3s over this career (50.2 percent), per data. And it is abundantly clear the 76ers will need him to come up big to stiff-arm the explosive Hawks. While Philadephia’s defense is formidable, Atlanta is potent enough to require the 76ers to turn up offensively. Curry is central to the supporting cast supplementing Joel Embiid.

You should know this about Curry: Him being in this position, a vital piece on a championship hopeful, is a product of years of toil in the shadow of Curry glamour. His road here wasn’t paved. [The Athletic]

Shake it off

Noah Levick | NBC Sports Philadelphia

And now, finally, another guard who flashed brilliance a few days ago after struggling mightily. Shake Milton received preseason Sixth Man of the Year buzz, but was inconsistent and never really seemed to replicate the same impressive level of offensive performance that got him his everyday NBA gig last season. That was until Tuesday. The Sixers, including head coach Doc Rivers, deserve credit for sticking with Shake and giving him a shot in Game 2, with Philly on the precipice of falling behind 0-2.

The questions about what was wrong when his jumpers this season weren’t consistently falling might have gotten old, but the slumps themselves have never appeared to fundamentally shatter Milton’s confidence or alter his approach. 

“Nothing changed,” he said on April 22, the night he snapped a 6-for-24 stretch with 20 points in Milwaukee. “Shoot when you’re open, pass when you’re not. The game’s always going to tell you what to do. Just be locked in and make plays.”

With Milton, his path is worth recalling on these occasions when it appears there’s widespread incredulity at his competence. He spent his rookie season on a two-way contract, splitting his time between Philadelphia — where his locker was next to Embiid's and it was necessary to “carve out” space — and the G League. 

He hasn’t seen it all, but he’s cleared quite a few hurdles for a 24-year-old. Whatever's next, it won't be stunning.  [NBCSP]

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