On his birthday, Embiid delivers present to fans

On his birthday, Embiid delivers present to fans

Most Sixers fans probably could've predicted the 2-0 result of the Sixers' back-to-back swing against the Knicks and the Nets, but the expenditure of energy it'd take to get there was hard to see coming. One night after needing a fourth-quarter comeback to escape from New York, the Sixers went even further down to the wire against Brooklyn at home, needing a huge final-minute three from Robert Covington and some savvy playing of the foul game from T.J. McConnell to squeak out the 120-116 win.

Both one of the biggest reasons the Nets were able to hang around and one of the biggest reasons the Sixers won anyway was the birthday boy himself, Joel Embiid. JoJo turned 24 yesterday, and he matched that with a 24-point performance -- though he needed 23 shots to get there, only hitting a Kobe-like six of them. But The Process was eminently trustworthy elsewhere in the box score: a career-high 19 boards, four assists (with only one turnover), and most importantly, an immaculate 11-11 from the foul line, where he'd been struggling recently (just 63% from the stripe this month previously). It was about as dominant a performance as our big guy could submit while being an absolute mess from the field.

And he was matched along the way by Ben Simmons. The Fresh Prince didn't notch his third consecutive triple-double, sadly, but he came damn close with his 21-8-12 line -- to go with three big steals and just two turnovers -- his highest-scoring night since he hung 32 on the Bulls in February. We've said it before, but having a superstar to carry your team when they're struggling is the ultimate luxury; having two feels downright immodest. (Simmons since All Stars were announced in late January, btw: 16-8-9 on 58% shooting and under three turnovers, with four triple-doubles and double-digit scoring in 25 out of 25 games.)

So the Sixers move to 38-30, two games up on Milwaukee in the seventh seed, half a game behind Washington at five, a full game behind Cleveland at four, and 1.5 behind Indiana at three. While the Sixers have struggled some against top-level teams in the past month -- going 1-5 in their last six games against playoff-bound opponents -- they've kept pace in the East by taking care of business against the sub-.500 teams, winning their last eight against losing squads, dating back to them taking an L against these Nets in Brooklyn at the end of January. Now they get a couple hard-earned days off before two more home games against lottery-bound squads in Charlotte and Memphis. Trust -- and celebrate -- The Process.

Ready to watch Sixers games that really matter?

USA Today Images

Ready to watch Sixers games that really matter?

I was not in good shape last night watching the Philadelphia 76ers losing to the New York Knicks for the better part of 48 minutes. I yelled at the TV, buried my head in my hands, cursed every player on their team and then every player on ours. I nearly tore my shirt in half after a couple Trey Burke jumpers. The shots dried up for the Knicks in the fourth quarter and the Sixers somehow came back to win 118-110, but the emotional damage was mostly done at that point. The Sixers may be ready for the postseason, but I am definitely not. 

It's been six years since we watched the Sixers in the postseason, but it's been a lot longer than that — I couldn't even tell you how long, exactly — since we watched them with expectation. My main reaction to watching Andre Iguodala hit two free throws to sink the Bulls in Game 6 in 2012 was to laugh hysterically. My primary response to seeing them go down in a hard-fought Game 7 against the Boston Celtics in the semis was to shrug and go, "Well, that whole thing was weird." Winning and losing wasn't really that big a deal in those days, even in the postseason, because we knew this wasn't really The Team for Philly. 

Now? When this team in the midst of scrapping for postseason position and looks like they're going to drop a dumb game on the road to a crappy lottery team that doesn't even want to win, it's friggin' Armageddon. As much as I was looking forward to the Sixers' relatively easy end-of-season schedule, now I'm wondering if I should've been dreading it all along, because we're bound to lose one or two of these games — hell, just this Wednesday, Milwaukee lost in Orlando and Miami fell to Sacramento in OT — and I am totally unprepared to handle it when that happens. Don't these guys know we could get to the 3-seed? WHAT THE HELL IS EVEN HAPPENING? And so on.

In a way, it's exciting to care this much — about something other than avoiding historic infamy or achieving lottery pole position, even. This is how sports should feel, sort of. But I wonder if Sixers fans are underestimating just what a toll this first Process postseason run is gonna take on us, and this isn't even really the postseason run that's supposed to matter for these guys. Is this what Spurs fans have gone through for 20 seasons straight? Sounds exhausting.

The Sixers host the Nets tonight. Let's hope for one of those Pistons-style Friday night blowouts. Back-to-back nights of this in March and I might not even make it to April. 

Sixers fail biggest test of the season

Sixers fail biggest test of the season

Call it the curse of the overachiever. At the beginning of the season, if you'd told Sixers fans that in mid-March, they'd be going down to the wire at home against the third seed in the Eastern Conference but coming up just short, you'd consider it a pretty reasonable state of affairs. But this Sixers squad has so eclipsed expectations this year that not only are they legitimately competing with the No. 3 seed, they're legitimately competing for the No. 3 seed. Consequently, last night's 101-98 loss to the Indiana Pacers hurt about as much as any in recent Sixers memory. 

It was the Sixers' first loss at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018, and the first (true) home game this season where the Sixers never really felt in control. In many ways, Philly was lucky to only lose by three — they turned the ball over 21 times (eight by Joel Embiid alone), gave up 14 offensive rebounds, and allowed the Pacers 20 more shots overall on the game. Some hot first-half shooting from JJ Redick and a dominant late-third-quarter stretch from Embiid kept the Sixers in it, but countless times, the Sixers would cut the lead to three or two, then throw the ball away on the next possession, or allow an Indiana putback. It felt like the more playoff-ready team won last night, and it obviously wasn't us. 

Which, again, not the end of the world. This was arguably the toughest game remaining on the Sixers' schedule, and from here things get pretty damn simple: They're in New York on Thursday, then host the Nets, Hornets and Grizzlies, before heading to Orlando. The Sixers will be overwhelming favorites in all five of those games, and even if they lose one of 'em, they should be in pretty good shape: They're still fairly entrenched in the sixth seed, and with the teams around them all holding tougher upcoming dockets than Philly, 4-1 should be enough to gain a game or two on someone. At the very least, the Sixers are all but a guaranteed playoff team: With the Pistons seven games under .500, there's absolutely no one outside the postseason picture currently pushing for the eighth seed in the East. 

But yeah, last night was disappointing. The Pacers are good but they're not true contenders; they've got veterans but they're still pretty young on the whole. If the Sixers were a for-real threat in the East, they'd probably have been able to take care of business — or at the very least, forced Indy to handle business themselves, rather than largely giving the game away to them. The Sixers are now 1-5 in their last six games against East playoff teams, and though previously we'd had the excuse of the first five of those contests being on the road, now we've proven that we're hardly invincible at home, either. The Sixers might not be a team anyone wants to face in the first round, but there aren't a lot of East playoff teams looking like pushovers to us right now either. 

Still: 29 and 12 for Embiid, a seventh triple-double for Ben Simmons (tying him with Magic Johnson for second-most in rookie history), 18 for Dario Saric … and hey, Markelle Fultz is shooting like a professional basketball human again! Life goes on, as does The Process. There'll come a day where the Sixers are able to pass such tests, and the fact it sucks this much that it wasn't last night is kinda cool in its own way.