How good are the Philadelphia 76ers, really? Well, they’ve locked in a playoff spot, Joel Embiid is back, and they’re good enough to beat the almighty Bucks on the road. That 130-125 win over Milwaukee showed that they can beat the top team in the East on a good day. But as they hope to tighten their grip on the three seed, how far can we expect the Sixers to go in the playoffs?
We’re just under four weeks away from the start of the postseason, but we knew the 76ers weren’t kidding about the playoffs when they executed some big trade deals mid-season. Their defense has greatly improved since receiving Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers prior to the February trade deadline. The small forward has helped them jump from 12th in defensive efficiency to 5th in the league.
The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a career-high 52 points on Sunday but that still wasn’t enough to pull out a W for the top team in the East. In their huge win against the Bucks, Sixers center Joel Embiid, who has been out several games since the All Star break due to soreness in his left knee, returned with a vengeance. Embiid led his team to victory with 40 points, 15 rebounds, and 6 assists, including an alley-oop slam and a three-pointer with 30 seconds left in the game. Jimmy Butler put up 27 points of his own and JJ Redick had 19, going 4-for-4 from beyond the arc. This was one of their best games of the season, and it showed that the Sixers are the real deal. It’d be amazing to see these two meet up again in the playoffs, but by the looks of the current standings, they’ll miss each other. Too bad.
As the Sixers’ biggest star player, Embiid is critical to the team’s success in the playoffs. And if he can continue playing like Sunday, they may be able to shock some teams. He’s an MVP-caliber player with a huge skill set and an ability to close. Embiid is so good that he doesn’t even have to run fast to make everything look easy – sometimes he doesn’t even look like he’s hustling! The seven-footer is leading his team with a whopping 27.3 points and 13.6 rebounds per game on average this season.
According to former NBA player Ronny Turiaf, in that Bucks-Sixers game, “[Embiid] was a beast. He did everything… He was everywhere, blocking shots, being active. He could be in the MVP race if the Sixers keep going as they are going. And he’s only 25. He’s going to be a problem for a lot of people.”
Jimmy Butler has also been a big role player in Sixers’ victories lately. Despite his recent shooting struggles and lagging defense since the All Star break, he’s shown he can hit pull-up jumpers, make plays at half-court, and hit shots in clutch time. Butler also began attempting threes again after a significant dry spell in previous weeks had everybody worried. When he’s playing well, he’s the Sixers’ second-best player for sure. Perhaps he just needed some adjustment to the February trades and changes in the lineup.
Ben Simmons is the final piece of the Sixers’ Big Three, but players like Tobias Harris and sharpshooter JJ Redick are also making huge contributions. Along with Embiid, they’re all perfectly suited for head coach Brett Brown’s motion offense strategy.
Depth, or lack thereof, could still be an issue for Sixers heading into the playoffs though. They hardly score any points off the bench – only two teams have fewer since the trade deadline. But the good news is that those teams with fewer off-the-bench points are the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors… and nobody seems to be worried about them. They’re in good company, but let’s just hope the Sixers starting lineup can stay healthy.
On Tuesday, the 76ers played the Charlotte Hornets, a team that’s trying to claw its way into the playoffs. Joel Embiid sat this one out to stay fresh, but the Sixers managed to escape 118-114 and complete their four-game season sweep of the Charlotte team. That game marks their fifth win in a row, a season-long streak for Philadelphia.
On Wednesday, the Sixers had a big game at home against division rivals, the Boston Celtics, another team trying to boost their rank in the East and live up to high expectations before April. Currently sitting at a number five seed, just a game behind the Indiana Pacers, Boston was hoping for an important (and emotional) win over the Sixers, having beaten them three times already this season. Embiid and Celtics guard Terry Rozier have recently had a little sideline drama themselves, so this was set to be an exciting matchup from the start. Philly was able to walk away with a close 118-116 win, relieving them of the worry that might be caused by a future matchup with Boston in the playoffs.
The 76ers take on the Hawks on Saturday.