April 11, 2023
Joel Embiid and the Sixers have finally arrived at the point we've been waiting all season for.
They've locked the third seed in and have a date with Mikal Bridges and the Brooklyn Nets coming up to begin their run in the NBA Playoffs, hoping this is finally the year – finally the team – that breaks through that second-round wall that has haunted the franchise for the past six years and snowballs all the way toward the NBA Finals.
This team, compared to years past, maybe has the most working in its favor, headlined by the fact that Joel Embiid has been playing some of the league's best basketball all year and may have finally locked up the MVP award along with it.
So is this the Sixers' year? For real this time?
Here's what they're saying...
Let's start with a look into some data and a couple of models' confidence in the Sixers.
As far as the odds go alone, the Sixers are coming in +475 to win the Eastern Conference – behind the Celtics at +160 and Bucks at +125 – and +900 to win the whole thing – trailing the Suns (+425), Celtics (+320), and Bucks (+265) – per DraftKings.
Over at The Ringer, with a live model that predicts success based on point differential and individual factors like injuries and schedule, the Sixers – right now at least – have the third-best shot at winning the NBA Finals at 11 percent and are a near lock to beat the Nets in the first round at 86 percent.
A quick look at The Ringers' projected top five:
|Team (Conf.)||Win 1st||Win 2nd||Win Conf. Finals||Win NBA Finals|
FiveThirtyEight's model also sees the Sixers with a decent chance of winning the title, though with the Celtics and Bucks still ahead of them.
And once again, they're about as much of a lock as you can predict to survive the opening round:
|Team (Conf.)||Conf. Semis||Conf. Finals||NBA Finals||Champs|
Granted, the first round has never been the Sixers' problem. It's everything that comes after – for just about every reason under the sun – that has kept them repeatedly falling short and leaving fans extremely cautious to wonder if this is the year it all finally clicks.
But then again...
After so many years, the drill does get ingrained into you: The Sixers tear through the regular season, take care of business against an overmatched lower seed in Round 1, then hit the wall when they finally have to face a team that's just as good, if not better.
The Nets look to be this year's first-round fodder, with Boston and Milwaukee waiting in the background to send them home again after six or seven games.
So what really makes this year any different?
For David Murphy over at the Inquirer, he argues that you can go in-depth as much as you want, but it really comes down to the fact that Embiid has been playing out of his mind all year.
Well, it’s Joel Embiid season. That’s really all there is to it. You can complicate the Sixers’ outlook on a number of different levels. But the bottom line is as simple as this: Throughout NBA history, the team with the best player in the league is more often than not one of the last teams standing.
If Embiid does indeed win the award, he probably sealed it with his 52-point effort in a 103-101 win over the Celtics on April 4. That performance was a case study in why these Sixers have a chance. Embiid is one of those rare players who has the ability to win a playoff series on his own. He won’t need to do that against the Nets, but he might against the Celtics in Round 2. And it will almost certainly take a virtuoso performance to knock off the Bucks, who might put themselves in the conversation as one of the best NBA teams of all time when all is said and done.
But hey, if Embiid really is the MVP, then maybe we should expect that sort of performance. [The Inquirer, $]
Playing out of his mind and with a play that might be as automatic as Jalen Hurts' and the Eagles' QB sneak.
Wrote Tim Bontemps in ESPN.com's NBA Playoff preview:
The 76ers generate 17.5 points per game directly off plays where Embiid sets an on-ball screen for Harden, by far the most among any combination in the NBA, per Second Spectrum tracking. The duo also averaged 1.14 points per direct pick on these plays, which ranks in the top 10 among combinations to run at least 400 plays together. [ESPN.com]Bontemps added that the setup for the Sixers to finally make a deep run is there, but they do need other aspects of the team to hold up, like their defense in the backcourt.
The 76ers have lost in the second round of the playoffs four times in the past five seasons. In the other, they were swept out of the bubble by the Celtics. Philly has gone 12 straight playoff appearances without reaching the conference finals, the second-longest active drought in the NBA, trailing the Washington Wizards (17), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. One key to get there will be the defense of Harden and Tyrese Maxey. There's little question the two of them can score with any backcourt tandem in the NBA. But will coach Doc Rivers be able to play them together against elite competition? [ESPN.com]
If the playoffs happened two months ago, this probably would've been the only series anyone would've been talking about.
I mean think about it, Joel Embiid, James Harden, and the Sixers going toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons?
The Wells Fargo Center would've been vicious and ESPN execs would've been frothing at the mouth scrambling over non-stop coverage.
It would have been chaos, but the Nets aren't that team anymore. They really couldn't be for another day by a certain point. Durant and Irving both got shipped out, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson came in, and Simmons just isn't playing... again.
All that took away a lot of the edge this series could've had, and for the Nets, after losing two star players, no one would've been surprised if they had folded and gone home early.
But Bridges and Johnson settled in with the remainder of the team, they made a push, and succeeded by nabbing the sixth seed.
They may not hold up against the Sixers running at full tilt, but just getting there after all they've been through is a win in its own right.
Wrote the New York Post's Dan Martin:
After the Irving and Durant trades, the Nets could have been seen as a longshot to make the playoffs.
Bridges, though, said the team didn’t use that perception as motivation.
“No, not really,’’ Bridges said. “People talk and stuff, [but] they don’t, I mean, you don’t know. … You’re not in here every day, you’re not working hard, being in the gym every single day and [knowing] how much work we’re trying to put in. So, no, that wasn’t it. It was just to ourselves and what we all wanted. We all wanted to win and all wanted to be in the playoffs. So we just took that upon us to just work hard and [the] coaches being on us, and us listening and learning.’’ [New York Post]
Still have to play the first round though, so don't disregard them.
Game 1 is Saturday in South Philly.
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