In reality the playoffs are possible, especially since Philadelphia presently sits 5.5 games out of the eight seed. But it’s highly unlikely Philadelphia makes the playoffs this season. Last night’s win against Toronto, however, feels like a validation for the Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors played their second game in as many nights, but Kyle Lowry took the first one off. The Raptors trail only the Warriors in offense this season, but Philadelphia held them to 89 points (which was only the second time they didn’t reach 90 points in a game this season). Yesterday I wrote the potential of Ben Simmons coming back next Friday, and of course later in the day ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported Simmons could come back soon after the All-Star Break, but there’s still no guarantee he’d play this season. That’s not the news 76er fans wanted to hear, but at least there’s a clearer indicator of when Simmons might be back. It’s not like the 76ers need him right now, anyway. The last time Philadelphia won six out of eight games was November 2012. But unlike that team that crumpled in Doug Collins final season, this team’s trending up, playing their best ball of the season with the only signs of slowing down happening with Joel Embiid off the court.
If Embiid misses the game, opponents have a really solid chance to win. If when Embiid leaves the game, and it’s a really close game, opponents have a really solid chance to win.
Philadelphia has several back-to-backs coming up, and that doesn’t bound too well for their playoff chances. It’d be a shame if Philly didn’t make the playoffs solely because of Embiid’s restrictions, but it’s completely acceptable for Embiid to continue to miss games to higher his chance of staying healthy. He’s been one of the best players in the NBA in January. It’s staggering how he’s impacted Philly’s defense. Check out this graphic (credit to reddit user: tomx312):
He challenged DeMar DeRozan several times in the first half, and DeRozan struggled to get going. It wasn’t until the second half that DeRozan had success and unsurprisingly it was mostly against Philadelphia defenders not named Embiid. Embiid also switched on Lowry a few times, and the 44 percent 3-point shooter couldn’t make it over Embiid’s stretch-out arms and then Embiid’s block on Lowry basically sealed the game with 20 seconds remaining. (Quick shout out to Robert Covington who has been tremendous on defense all season for blocking Lowry’s first attempt on that same possession).
An underrated aspect of judging a player is their desire. It’s nearly impossible to qualify, because other factors, namely money and fame, enter the view once a player reaches the professional level. Dario Saric was labeled a below-average defender. He doesn’t have the quickness to defend small forwards in the NBA, and that’s an entirely fair assessment. But what Saric did on one possession created this playoff-type atmosphere in the building that probably shocked many people considering how the player generated the buzz. Nobody would be surprised if Saric had hit back-to-back threes followed by a highlight behind the back pass. But he stuffed two players at the rim. These weren’t ordinary blocks. Saric first met Norman Powell’s incredible force just in the nick of time. And then Saric perfectly timed Jared Sullinger’s attempt, cause the ball to hit off Sullinger. Immediately Nerlens Noel and Gerald Henderson pushed Saric towards the 76er bench, and Saric wore a face comparable to any classic competitor. It was his moment, and he knew it. And Embiid even jumped up from his typical floor position to, for some unknown reason, squeeze Saric’s butt. Even more than Embiid’s fourth quarter dominance, Saric’s defensive stand will be remembered most from this game.
The city has embraced this team wholeheartedly. Now it could stem from the notion that the 76ers were the NBA’s punchline for three straight years, and this team now resembles actual, competent basketball. But for some reason, it appears deeper than that. This team’s actually good right now. They’re extremely confident, and who knows how long that’ll last, but the very best Zach Lowe tweeted this out this morning. And that’s encouraging moving forward. TJ McConnell and Nik Stauskas weren’t supposed to be the starting backcourt in January, but things happen, and for right now, it’s working for Philadelphia.
Ersan Ilyasova deserves so much credit. He’s been a fresh of breath air since Bryan Colangelo traded for him a week into the season. Colangelo deserves all the credit for making that happen, and it’s really changed the direction of this team. Ilyasova might not be here next month, or next year, but his imprint on this season has already been noted: The 76ers are 12-12 when Ilyasova starts. And 11-7 when Embiid and Ilyasova both start.
It’s not likely the 76ers make the postseason this year, and that’s fine. They’re brought an excitement to this city that didn’t seem possible this time last year. A year ago today Philadelphia had a 5-38 record with little hope. They’re now 6-2 this month.