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.”