Facing Boston in the second round felt like a true lose-lose situation. Win and everybody says Boston wasn’t at full strength. Lose and everybody mocks this prematurely anointed 76ers squad. The hype felt out of control. Everything seemed to be happening so fast. One week, the 76ers take out the Miami Heat, becoming Eastern Conference Finals favorites, the next week the Celtics win three straight to take a commanding lead. That’s the beauty of it all. Watching a team try and put the pieces together.
A few years ago, my sister and I had discussions about TJ McConnell. Philadelphia won 10 games McConnell’s rookie year, and it’s not like McConnell impressed that much. Sam Hinkie never addressed the point guard position heading into that season, opting for cheap options like Pierre Jackson, McConnell and Kendall Marshall. Marshall was the presumed starter, but that never really came to fruition due to his ACL injury suffered in Milwaukee. Philadelphia eventually traded for Ish Smith, preventing Philadelphia from being the worst team in the history of basketball. McConnell had some moments, but it became evident he only made a NBA roster because the 76ers wanted to lose games. During NBA Summer League, following his rookie year, is really when those discussions about McConnell began. We both agreed he needed to be better if he had any hopes of making the NBA his career. Neither of us, though, expected him to be this good.
Ben Simmons being a minus 23 in a game didn’t seem possible. Just look at his last couple months. Even though he scored single-digits on more than one occasion, it didn’t seem possible he could play as poorly as he did Thursday night. There was the last regular season game against Milwaukee, but he only played 22 minutes. Simmons only scored six points against the Magic and seven against the Nuggets in March, but he had double-digit assists in those games. He always felt in control of the game, even if his shot wasn’t falling. Thursday night was a different story.
I didn’t even know of him until after he died. His sister’s letter on Medium struck a chord someplace deep inside. That was in 2015. Last year I finally watched the entire series of Parks and Recreation (re-watching dozens of episodes since). Then I listened to a podcast he did with Pete Holmes where he openly talks about heroin. He described things so matter of fact throughout the hour-plus listen. Not long after the recording, heroin took his life.
Ben Simmons has averaged 18.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 2.4 steals this postseason. Miami tried everything. Full-court pressure, traps, trash talk. Nothing slowed down the 21-year-old point guard. Philadelphia won the series Tuesday night, and Simmons was the major reason why.
The 76ers made the NBA Finals 17 years ago. Since then, Philadelphia has played nine playoff series, losing seven of them. Saturday night the 76ers will host their first Game 1 since April 20, 2003. Head coach Brett Brown says star center Joel Embiid won’t play that game. But Wells Fargo Center promises to rock harder than a Jack White concert regardless.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. All of this success. Sure, nothing has really been won yet. But 50 wins? Fifty wins means something. Fifty wins for just the second time since 1990. It’s a benchmark. A talking point for fanbases to argue and dissect. Tuesday night, the 76ers go for 51. And then Wednesday they could go for 52. Philadelphia is positioned to be a three seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs this weekend. It didn’t seem fathomable back in October. It seemed even less likely following losses to the Suns and Kings a couple months later. But here the 76ers are. Fifty wins.