PHASE 1: Tank to acquire young superstars via the draft
PHASE 2: ???
PHASE 3: Win championship(s)
With their opening-round knockout of the Miami Heat, the Sixers appear ready to fast-forward through the second phase of that plan.
“I think our time is now,” Embiid told reporters Monday. “… We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have. We have a special team, and I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.”
After dropping home-court advantage to the Heat in Game 2, the Sixers battled back to steal both games on the road in Miami. They came back to a raucous, Meek Mill-inspired Wells Fargo Center crowd in Game 5, one that was ready to root them on to their first playoff series victory since the 2011-12 season.
As had been the case throughout the series, the first half Tuesday featured plenty of tough, physical play. The two teams entered the locker room knotted at 46 apiece, which marked the first time the Sixers weren’t trailing at the half in these playoffs. As Charles Barkley decried Philadelphia’s lack of killer instinct on the Inside the NBA halftime show, the Sixers prepared for yet another third-quarter salvo that would put the series to bed for good.
Coming out of halftime, the Sixers thumped the Heat, 34-20, over the ensuing 12 minutes. Miami reeled off one last-gasp run midway through the fourth quarter to cut Philly’s lead to eight, but a James Johnson personal foul and technical foul ensured the Heat would get no closer from there.
The type of resilience the Sixers put on display against Miami will serve them well in future rounds. After the Heat outmuscled them in Game 2, head coach Brett Brown ensured his young squad wouldn’t fall short in that department again. Despite tensions flaring throughout the series — there were three pairs of technicals doled out in Game 3 alone! —the Sixers largely maintained their composure and didn’t fall into the trap of trying to emulate Miami’s gritty, half-court style.
In Ben Simmons’ first taste of playoff experience, he finished the series averaging 18.2 points on 50.0 percent shooting, 10.6 rebounds and 9.0 assists, asserting his will on both ends of the court. (He also became the first rookie since Magic Johnson to record a triple-double in a playoff game, NBD.)
Joel Embiid was rusty offensively upon his return from an orbital fracture in Game 3, but he still managed to average 18.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks while anchoring a stifling defense. Dario Saric, a fellow playoff neophyte, finished the series with 16.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.4 triples in just 29.7 minutes per game. Robert Covington ran hot and cold offensively, but he banged home nine 3-pointers in the series while smothering Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade and a host of Miami wings.
Getting that type of production from four postseason newcomers was the difference between Philadelphia preparing for a second-round series and going fishing for the summer.
The Sixers’ veterans also made an enormous impact against the Heat, from J.J. Redick’s team-high 2.6 treys per game to Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli stretching Miami’s defense past its point of no return. Ilyasova helped to render Hassan Whiteside useless throughout much of the series, while Belinelli proved capable of turning a close game into a rout with one shooting surge.
That versatility makes Philadelphia a threat to continue advancing in these playoffs. The Sixers’ bench leads all reserve units with a plus-9.7 net rating this postseason. Their starters, who boasted a monstrous plus-21.4 net rating during the regular season, outscored the Heat by 10.6 points per 100 possessions in their 27 minutes on the floor alongside one another.
As Embiid continues to shake off his offensive rust and grows more accustomed to his oft-irksome mask, Philly’s starting lineup could become even more potent.
“I’m sure I’m biased but I feel, as I look at the playoffs and I look at our team, that we have as much room for growth as anybody,” Brown told reporters Monday, following the Sixers’ 27-turnover performance in their Game 4 win. “I think we have more room for growth. I look at that as a real exciting opportunity. You sort of go through college and now here we are in grad school, if you will, and we have a chance to learn a lot more. And we need to.”
Brown isn’t wrong. That’s what makes the Sixers so dangerous.
No player is averaging more passes (88.6) or potential assists (21.2) in this year’s playoffs than Simmons. But after shooting 36.9 percent from 3-point range as a team throughout the regular season, the Sixers canned only 31.4 percent of their looks from deep against Miami. They finished the series 21-of-55 on wide-open 3-point attempts (with no defender within six feet).
If some of those shots begin to fall in the next round against the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers will likely replicate the routs they mustered in Games 1 and 3 against the Heat.
Defensively, they’re far superior with Embiid back. The Heat shot a horrendous 26.3 percent at the rim against the big man, and the Sixers allowed 11.8 fewer points per 100 possessions during his 91 minutes on the court compared to the 149 minutes he didn’t play against Miami. Philadelphia’s defensive rating with Embiid on the floor (94.3) would lead all playoff teams by a full six points per 100 possessions. Though his regular-season on-off splits weren’t as extreme, the Sixers’ defense with Embiid likewise outpaced the output from all other teams.
Against Miami, the Sixers proved they could win in a variety of ways. They buried the Heat in a barrage of 3-pointers to break Games 1 and 3 open. They overcame a horrendous 27-turnover night in Game 4, becoming the first team in more than 30 years to win a playoff game despite coughing the ball up that frequently. They could survive cold spells from their shooters by riding Embiid down low. Simmons controls the flow of a game like a 10-year veteran rather than a rookie.
The going won’t get easier from here, but the Sixers appear well-equipped to handle whatever obstacles they confront moving forward. They’ll likely be favored in the conference semifinals, regardless of whether they wind up drawing the Boston Celtics or the Milwaukee Bucks. And unless the Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers or Washington Wizards can string together more consistency, those squads wouldn’t be rock-solid locks to beat Philadelphia in the conference finals, either.
Philly fans shouldn’t start purchasing their NBA Finals tickets just yet, but the Sixers’ future appears blindingly bright so long as their young core remains healthy. With the ability to carve out $30-plus million in salary-cap space and a likely lottery pick heading their way in June — not to mention the prospect of No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz regaining his shooting form during the offseason — the Sixers’ opening-round triumph over Miami may be their first of many playoff series victories in the coming years.