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.
This postseason, the first one since after Sam Hinkie took over, was always supposed to be a fun and relaxed one. Philadelphia was supposed to be the eight seed, or maybe the seventh. Ben Simmons, a rookie and Embiid, barely with experience. Maybe the 76ers would challenge the Cavaliers or Celtics to six or seven games before ultimately losing. Then the off-season would consist of chatter about how the 76ers would be the team most likely to make a big leap, possibly contending for a title in the ensuing season. This postseason, assuming Embiid returns in the first round, has a different feeling than fans imagined, however. There’s a seriousness surrounding the team and its chances. It stems from winning 16 consecutive games to end the regular season, sure, but it also has to do with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward being unavailable for the Celtics, and the Raptors having to potentially face the Cavaliers in round two. It leaves Philadelphia with an opportunity.
Miami won’t be easy, with or without Embiid. The Heat cause match-up nightmares. The season series was a split, with each team winning home games. This isn’t a post about Philadelphia having this easy path ahead. The Heat could without question defeat the 76ers. But it would be a disappointment, and if before the season somebody said Philly losing a first round playoff series would be considered a disappointment, it would be hard to fathom.
Simmons has been this otherworldly sensation since the All-Star Break. Philadelphia has played 27 games since then, winning 22 times. Simmons averages 14.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 2.9 turnovers, 1.4 steals while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. He had 16 double doubles and six triple doubles. Only Robert Covington had a higher plus-minus than Simmons’ 9.4 the past couple months. Ten of the 27 games Philadelphia has played since the All-Star Break came against .500 or better teams. Philadelphia managed to go only 5-5 in those games. Of course, it’s something to watch as the first round begins. But this 76ers team is for real. Philadelphia split the season series against the Rockets and Cavaliers, swept the Spurs and scored 47 points in the first against the Warriors (ignore the third quarter score of aforementioned game, though).
It’s going to be a joy watching how he navigates the postseason, especially with how revered Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra is around the NBA. The Heat have James Johnson, Josh Richardson and Justice Winslow to throw at Simmons. It’ll be a challenge all series long, but that’s the joy of it all to see how Simmons responds to double-teams, various defenses and the occasional intentional foul to put the poor free throw shooter at the line. The six-foot-10 Australian’s demeanor has been special all year. He’s even keeled, rarely demonstrating much emotion besides the screech following a two-handed jam. His mannerisms compare more favorable to a savvy veteran than to a player who is just two years removed from leading LSU to a 19-14, NCAA tournament-less season.
On the eve of the postseason there’s a different, more eager feeling among the fan base. There’s a reason for optimism. The Center will be loud Saturday night. There hasn’t been much postseason success for the 76ers this century. That could, however, change in a matter of weeks. It would be a disappointment otherwise.