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.
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.
Hey, the Philadelphia 76ers are a good basketball team. If they weren't, they probably would've lost last night, when on the second game of a back-to-back, they fell into a 14-point hole against the Charlotte Hornets (winners of 5 of their last 6) late in the third quarter. But thanks to some clutch shooting, stringent late-game D and the welcome bench presence of returned Processor Ersan Ilyasova (18-4-3 on 7-11 shooting), they fought back, and were able to capture the edge late in the fourth, eventually winning 110-99.
As big a win as it was for the Sixers' playoff position — leaving them a secure sixth in the East, with just two games separating them from Cleveland in third — it's probably bigger for the nice round number that gets to sit in the "G" section of Joel Embiid's Basketball-Reference page for this season. Embiid has now played 50 games in his sophomore season, a number that many of us thought he might never reach over the course of a full 82, and that even more of us figured we'd be blessed if he managed to hit at all this season — let alone with 21 games still to go.
Last night certainly wasn't Embiid's best performance as a Sixer — he shot just 8-19 from the field and 6-11 from the line (a rare shooting mini-slump from The Process), turned the ball over four times, and was plagued by foul trouble for much of the first three quarters. But he also kept Philly alive with a dominant 15-point third quarter, and made half of the play of the game, when he dished to Ilyasova on a give-and-go with under three to go to put the Sixers up five. Frankly, the fact that Embiid could have a 24-15-4 line (with three blocks, and total dominance of opposing center Dwight Howard) and have it count as something of a down game for him just shows how much we're already starting to take his brilliance as a given.
Through Embiid's 50 games this season, the Sixers are 31-19 — the winning percentage of a 51-win team overall — and he's on pace to play a remarkable 67 games total. That's not to say he definitely will, as you still never know what little injuries will pop up to derail his current consistency. But again, just to be this deep in the season, and to have JoJo playing both ends of a back-to-back with neither his health or his minutes a major source of discussion afterwards, is already more than most of us dared to dream. The fact that the Sixers are winning through it as well just feels like extra syrup on the sundae.