detroit pistons

Could Sixers, Pistons see each other in postseason?

AP Images

Could Sixers, Pistons see each other in postseason?

For all the talk of early games against the Celtics, Warriors, Cavaliers and Rockets being a measuring stick, the Sixers' first two meetings with the Pistons were just as significant.

There are the teams to beat around the league, the ones who have already proven to be title contenders. Then there are the teams on the rise who are showing signs of being trouble to compete with in the future.

Put Detroit in the latter category.

“This is a team that we’ve got to beat if we want to make the playoffs and if we want to have potentially homecourt advantage in the first round,” JJ Redick said of the Pistons. “I don’t look at them as a team like us; they’re a team that’s been in the playoffs. They’re a team that, to me, is good and is playing as well as anybody in the East right now.”

Both the Pistons (14-8) and Sixers (13-9) are on the upswing. They hold two of the top five spots in the Eastern Conference (the Pistons sit fourth and the Sixers sit fifth, as of Sunday morning) and could very well be a playoff pairing this season. The Sixers are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012. The Pistons' last postseason appearance was in 2016, when they were swept by the Cavaliers in the first round. 

While upsetting conference finals mainstays is a mark of notable progress, learning how to beat a potential postseason opponent is critical. The Sixers have won both of their matchups with Detroit this season, including a 108-103 victory on Saturday. The Sixers won, 97-86, in Detroit on Oct. 23. 

“They’re a really good team,” Joel Embiid said after Saturday's victory. “That’s a good win for us. We’ve dropped a lot of easy ones this year, so getting those wins against what we could be opening in the playoffs if we make it and if they make it is always good, learning their style of play.”

The Sixers are turning the franchise around with Embiid and Ben Simmons at the helm. They are rounded out with depth from Robert Covington and the veteran Redick, as well as a balanced roster that is proving to be able to withstand injuries. 

Over on the Pistons, Andre Drummond is figuring out how to hit free throws, Avery Bradley and Reggie Jackson are pesky in the backcourt and Tobias Harris is playing career-best basketball. 

“Trying to balance out the Drummond rolling and still giving attention to those good wings is a trick,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “You learn a little bit about physicality and halfcourt execution, and then you learn how physical they are on defense. It gets back to being strong, secure with the ball and respecting things, not trying to make home run passes.”

The Sixers face the Pistons again twice more, including an April 4 game that could have postseason seeding implications. 

“They gave us a run [Saturday] off a back-to-back,” Covington said. “They fought with us the entire team. That team is different than what we saw the first time. We’re going to have to see them two more times —  potential playoffs. It’s a matter of us locking in and making sure we continue to grow.”

Sixers are better than all but the best teams

AP Images

Sixers are better than all but the best teams

Generally speaking, there have been two types of wins for the Sixers this season: ones where their stars bail out their shooters and ones where their shooters bail out their stars. It's felt pretty rare that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have dominated inside the arc at the same time that Robert Covington and JJ Redick have rained down holy hellfire from beyond it. But more often than not, at least one of those tandems is making the magic happen, and making Philly tough to outpace for 48 minutes. Last night, it was mostly the latter, as Covington hit six huge triples to break out of his week-long shooting slump, and help the Sixers earn a 108-103 win over the Detroit Pistons (and newly ranked Process foe Andre Drummond). 

It wasn't the best of nights for Embiid and Simmons. Embiid ended with respectable numbers of 25 and 10, also fouling out Drummond (who dared return fire over JoJo's trash-talking pregame and was subsequently booed all night at WFC) while posting them, but he also shot an unsightly 7 for 21, with six turnovers and no assists, as he became perhaps a tad myopic in his Drummond demolition. And Simmons was uncharacteristically reserved on offense, scoring just five points on six shots — both career lows — and only handing out six assists in 39 minutes. What seemed at halftime like it was going to be an easy Sixers win instead became a grind-it-out W, as Philly's third-quarter offense imploded and Detroit vaporized the 16-point halftime lead by the start of the fourth. 

But Covington's 25 kept the Sixers afloat, as did a combined 35 from JJ Redick (6-10 FG, 1-3 3PT) and Dario Saric (6-11 FG, 2-5 3PT). Though Redick has run scalding and frigid with his long-range shooting this season, he's starting to show some of the other things he can do to stay productive while frosty from deep — not only nailing twos off curls and step-ins, but moving the ball exceptionally, ending with a team- and personal season-high seven dimes last night. And Dario has really come on since Thanksgiving, averaging 18 and 8, shooting 53 percent from the field and filling in the gaps in the Sixers' offense with smart cuts, extra passes and second-chance-opportunity creation. 

Though the Sixers' bench is struggling a little bit — particularly in the absence of unit anchor T.J. McConnell, who missed his second straight last night with a shoulder contusion — the starting lineup has proven capable of hanging with just about any opposing first five. Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid is an insane net plus-19 points per 100 possessions in 150 minutes of on-court time, according to Basketball-Reference, which is fourth-best in the whole league among lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together. 

And that's sort of the point with the Sixers at this juncture of the season. Through 22 games, they've played about as insane a schedule as any team — 14 of their 22 games coming against teams currently with winning records, including a combined seven against the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics and Cavaliers — and they're still four games over .500, and beating pretty much every team except those four. The Pistons are 0-2 against the Sixers, and 14-6 against the rest of the NBA. The Sixers aren't good enough to hang with the league's true elite, but you have to like their chances against pretty much anyone else. A quarter through the season, and their only truly bad loss came in that absurd collapse to the Kings. It's disconcerting rooting for a team this reliable.
But when you have a first five like the Sixers do, stocked with franchise-caliber talents and championship-caliber supporting players, it's hardly surprising that you end up winning a lot of games. They won't be true contenders this season — the decisive 1-6 record against the league's real contenders should ably demonstrate as much — but they're already in the tier just below that truly elite class, and with a couple easy-appearing games coming up on their schedule (home to the Suns and Lakers this week), their record may soon start to reflect it as well. Injury concerns are the only thing separating these Sixers from not only making the playoffs, but being a legitimate problem for their first-round opponent. To anticipate that things might get even better than this in seasons to come — which, y'know, they probably should — feels damned greedy. 

JJ Redick praises 'incredible' home crowd

AP Images

JJ Redick praises 'incredible' home crowd

JJ Redick has played in over 700 games around the NBA. He called Orlando, Milwaukee and Los Angeles home for his first 11 seasons. Playing in Philadelphia, though, is in its own league to him.

“Our crowd is incredible,” Redick said after the Sixers108-103 win over the Pistons. “It’s the best home crowd I’ve played with in my career.”

More than 20,000 fans packed the sold-out Wells Fargo Center Saturday night, as they have been doing this season. Redick signed with the Sixers this past offseason expecting a strong fan base at home, and it has not disappointed.

“I had some good ones in Orlando and sometimes in L.A. with the Clippers we had good home crowds,” Redick said. “But in terms of just consistently bringing it every night, we feed off that. They’re tremendous.”

Sixers fans have been extra vocal this season, whether it is chanting “Trust the Process” or jeering the opponent. They rose to their feet in support as the Sixers fended off a Pistons upset. The only time the fans stood for the visiting team was to give Andre Drummond an ovation for fouling out.

“When Rob Covington hits back-to-back threes and the fans are going nuts, that’s fun for everyone,” Redick said. “That’s when it’s beautiful and that’s when you get great atmospheres.”

The Sixers are in a three-game homestand and Redick wants to hear the crowd every night. The team is 5-2 at the Wells Fargo Center since returning from its West Coast road trip last month, the only losses to the Warriors and Cavaliers.

“It gives us energy,” Redick said. “I’ve talked about this earlier in the season, but there is a symbiotic relationship I think when it really works between the fans sort of feeding off the players’ energy and the players feeding off the fans’ energy. You can create sort of a frenzied atmosphere.”