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Sixers staking their claim as a legitimate NBA title contender

The Philadelphia 76ers entered Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers as the last remaining undefeated team. With Joel Embiid out due to a suspension and Damian Lillard going nuclear throughout the contest, it looked like the Sixers were going to suffer that first loss of the season.

Instead, Philly erased a 21-point second-half deficit and earned a thrilling 129-128 victory thanks to Furkan Korkmaz’s game-winning triple in the final second:

This would have been a ridiculous comeback even if Embiid was involved, but to pull this off in a tough place to win like the Moda Center without the best player makes it even more special. We saw a big reason why the Sixers acquired Al Horford, who can excel with Embiid while also being Embiid insurance when the big man misses time. Horford went for 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 30 minutes of action.

Philly got key performances from across the roster in this win, with Tobias Harris (23 points and seven boards), Ben Simmons (18 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists) and Josh Richardson (17 points and six assists) all shining. The bench added 43 points to outscore Portland’s reserves by eight points.

Based on this 5-0 start featuring two games without Embiid, the Sixers look ready to live up to the hype placed on them before the season. While losing Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat was tough, winding up with Horford and Richardson in free agency gave Philly a huge, unique starting lineup that’s as good as any in the league.

This starting group may have some issues scoring the ball at times, but they’ve been absolutely dominant defensively. They’ve allowed just 87.8 points per 100 possessions in 37 minutes of action, per NBA.com. If you swap out Embiid for rookie Matisse Thybulle, that defensive rating is 85.9 in 28 minutes. Thybulle has been dreadful offensively, but he’s averaging 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks in just 20.6 minutes per game. That kind of defensive impact is what made Thybulle so attractive coming out of Washington, where he averaged 3.5 steals and 2.3 blocks as a senior.

Embiid has been a beast himself in the three games he has played. His averages of 23.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 blocks are stellar as is, but the Sixers have also given up just 85.0 points per 100 possessions in his minutes so far. Philly is going to be an elite defensive team all season given relatively good health, and if the offense can operate at a high level or close to it, this squad will have a legitimate chance to win it all.

It doesn’t look like that offense will include Simmons jumpers after all the hubbub in the offseason, but that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. He can still be effective as long as he stays involved and aggressive, though things will be tougher in the postseason.

Still, whatever flaws they may have, it’s hard not to be impressed with how the Sixers have started this 2019-20 campaign. Perhaps this is indeed the season Brett Brown’s club takes the next step.