This month going a lot better than expected for Sixers

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USA Today Images

This month going a lot better than expected for Sixers

I remember looking at the calendar at the beginning of 2018 and wondering if three weeks in, we weren't already going to be looking at the playoffs as a near-impossibility for the Sixers. Ten of their next 12 games were against teams in the playoff picture as the calendar turned -- including each of the next seven -- while the Sixers were two games under .500, having just finished a 5-10 December that included losses to the Kings, Bulls, Suns and Lakers. A 2-5 or 1-6 start to the new year and we would've had some serious work to do in order to catch up in February and March.

Well, uh, the Sixers appear to be slightly ahead of schedule. Instead of kicking off the year on a 2-5 or 1-6 run, they've instead burst through the door on a 5-1 tear -- still undefeated in North America in 2018 -- with the most recent win coming Saturday night with a closer-than-it-looked-but-also-not-totally 116-94 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, the Sixers don't have catching up to do to make it back on the right side of the postseason bubble; hell, at 22-20, they're already sixth in the East. 

Say this for last night's game: The Sixers are really discovering every permutation of the blown-double-digit-lead game this season. It happened again last night, of course -- looked like they'd pull away in the second, instead let the Bucks battle back to recapture the lead in the second half -- but they got the cycle out of the way early enough that they were still able to reach escape velocity in the fourth quarter, ultimately winning by 22. Until they figure out the don't-blow-the-lead-at-all game, this is probably the most preferable version of the game so far. 

Joel Embiid went for 29 and 9 on 12-19 shooting and dominated on both ends, ho-hum. Dario Saric (13-6-7) and Ben Simmons (16-8-9) both got most of the way to triple-doubles, while Robert Covington (13-5-3-4) hit multiple triples for the first time in four games. T.J. (11-3-7) was T.J. Even Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, filling in for an injured (and bad) Jerryd Bayless, was sparkling, scoring 16 on 5-9 shooting, with a +21 for his 30 minutes on the court. If he can give us anywhere near that production level on a consistent basis, it'll make the loss of JJ Redick for the rest of the month a whole lot more palatable for Brett Brown & Co. 

And speaking of players being out -- boy, teams have sure been doing us a favor in spotting us one or two this month, huh? After a 2017 portion of the season where it felt like the Sixers were always the undermanned squad -- aside from one game against the John Wall-less Wizards which we nearly blew, and one against the Blazers without Damian Lillard which we actually did -- Philly has in six 2018 contests already faced the Spurs without Kawhi Leonard (and assorted other rotation cogs), the Celtics without Kyrie Irving and the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo or Malcolm Brogdon. Easier to deal with the Deer with Khris Middleton as your only real offensive concern, certainly, and we'll see Brogdon in Milwaukee soon enough.

Anyway, understandable that even our most formidable opponents are doing what they can to duck #SixersJanuary. The team is once again trending entirely in the right direction, the home crowd is feeling it, and Philadelphia basketball is as fun and as fearsome as it's been since... well, last January. This is our month, and we'll deal with all the weird crises sure to beset the squad in the months to come after Groundhog Day. For now, with absolutely nothing else going on in the world of Philadelphia sports, let's just be sure to take the time to enjoy it. 

Embiid an All-Star, Horford is toast, and Sixers over .500!

Embiid an All-Star, Horford is toast, and Sixers over .500!

It was a new level for Sixers fans: Getting insufferable about Joel Embiid's snub as an All-Star starter before it even actually happened. Embiid being overlooked for the mid-season classic last year, combined with him losing Rookie of the Year in the summer, combined with our general over-defensiveness and willingness to start s--t on the Internet, resulted in a days-long siege on any credible writer with the temerity to claim that Boston center Al Horford was more deserving of making the East first five than our JoJo.

We were jerks, but we were also right. And this time, we were actually validated twofold on TNT last night -- first by Joel actually being named an All-Star starter, then by him and the Sixers essentially creaming the Celtics and Horford in their subsequent matchup, ultimately winning 89-80 and moving over .500 for the first time in a month.

First, the All-Star spot: I mean, darn tootin'. You don't need to go particularly deep into Joel Embiid's sophomore season in the NBA to determine he's starter-worthy. You could look at his exceedingly impressive stat line (24 & 11 with two blocks on 49% shooting), or equally formidable advanced stats (a 23.3 PER, a top ten defensive rating, sixth in Player Impact Estimate). You could look at how his on-off splits affect the Sixers' net rating -- they're nine points better on offense and eight better on defense when he's out there -- or just look at the Sixers' record with him playing (19-13) vs. when he's not (2-7). Or, you could just look at him playing in a game like Thursday night's, and count the number of times you end up shaking your head in grateful disbelief. He's an All-Star, and he deserves to be out at opening tip. 

And Al Horford... it's a silly enough argument that we don't need to spend a ton of time on it, but it's just hard to mount any kind of stat-based argument for why he should be in there over Embiid. People point to games played (40 for Horford vs. 31 for Embiid going into last night) as if Embiid doesn't still outproduce Horford in his more-limited PT -- he handily leads the Celtics center not just in points, rebounds and blocks per game, but in total points, rebounds and blocks, despite having played over 300 fewer minutes. His efficiency stats are superior, his advanced stats are superior, his on-off splits show a greater two-way impact -- the only number (besides games played) that Horford definitely has on his side is wins, with Boston having racked up 14 more of those than Philly. 

But if there was any lingering doubt about which of the two should have made it as a starter -- and Horford will make it as a reserve, and deservedly so -- it had to have been put to bed last night. Not that one game is enough to draw a season's worth of conclusions, but Joel's 26-16-6 last night absolutely dwarfed Horford's 14-4-3, as the former took over the game in the third quarter while the latter was practically invisible on the floor. And if your case for Horford is mostly based on the ways he contributes to Ws while Embiid just compiles stats, you have to wonder why the C's looked absolutely inept for 44 minutes in this one without best player Kyrie Irving leading the offense, and why Horford missed on several shots to make the game really interesting as things tightened down the stretch. 

Again, not like one game should really make the difference. But to me at least, it accurately exemplified how Joel is a transformative player that can make bad teams good, and Horford is a complimentary player that can help make already-good teams great. If you perceive the latter as more All-Star-worthy, I guess that's your call, but I see the former is the far rarer and more essential part of basketball greatness, which is what the game and the vote should probably be about.

Anyway, JoJo was awesome, the Celtics were lousy, and the Sixers beat Boston for the first time in four tries this season. As previously mentioned, asterisk on this one as a shoulder injury kept out fellow All-Star starter Kyrie Irving -- though we had to play 'em once without Joel, so fair play there -- but even against a sans-Kyrie C's squad, the performance was impressive. Boston was kept to 32 in the first half, and without free throws altogether until well into the third quarter, as the Sixers switched relentlessly on the perimeter and locked down brilliantly in the paint, giving up the fewest easy looks I can remember all season. 

And then, of course, the late-game meltdown. The lead was big enough (18 points) and Boston's offense looked miserable enough that I thought this thing was essentially unblowable by midway through the fourth quarter, but Philly nearly found a way, allowing Boston to claw back to within seven with two remaining, and giving up several three-point looks (a couple by Horford himself) that could've cut it to four if they'd dropped. But they didn't, the Sixers maintained well enough, and escaped with the nine-point victory. 

That's two straight should've-been-feel-good upsets of the East's top two teams that we're leaving feeling more frustrated and/or relieved than exultant. But again, they're still wins, and hard-earned ones against very tough squads, neither of which we have to play anymore this (regular) season. To squeeze this one out without J.J. is a pretty big deal for Philly, and gives us an even bigger buffer for when we go against the remaining tough teams on our schedule this January (Bucks twice, Spurs, Thunder) with our best shooter on the pine. And at 21-20, not only do we have a winning record again, but we're back in the playoff picture, tied for 8th with the plummeting Detroit, and just 3.5 games separating us with the fourth-place Miami Heat -- who we have a better point differential than, by the way. 

Haven't crunched the numbers yet on where Thursday night ranks among the all-time most-validating nights in Process history, but the combo of Embiid's All-Star start and the Sixers beating the Celtics for just the second time in the last 16 tries has to get it up there. It's amazing how much has still gone right this season with so much also going wrong, and the biggest reason for that wears No. 21 and will be one of the first ten players on the floor this Feb. 18th. Plus, with 32 games played out of 41 -- already a new career best -- JoJo finally has us about halfway to a successful season on the whole

Is Joel Embiid actually over Rihanna?

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NBA on TNT

Is Joel Embiid actually over Rihanna?

Joel Embiid is officially an All-Star.

Maybe Rihanna is now interested?

Even if so, sorry, RiRi … "The Process" has moved on.

In a postgame interview Thursday night with NBA on TNT's Kristen Ledlow, Embiid was asked about his old crush (a topic which resurfaced that evening).

Any words for the national audience, Mr. All-Star?

"She denied me back then, so why go with her again?" Embiid said with a smile after the Sixers' 89-80 win over the Celtics (see game story). "Might have to pass that and move on to the next one."

Ben Simmons wasn't so sure.

"Shoot for the stars," Simmons said to ESPN. "Shoot his shot."

So, anything else, JoJo?

"Trust the process," Embiid said.

Now that's an All-Star.