Take a day to enjoy 52-30 before worrying about the playoffs

Take a day to enjoy 52-30 before worrying about the playoffs

After 15 games in a row, I probably should've learned my lesson. But I really though the streak was ending last night: The Sixers looked gassed against the Hawks in Atlanta on Tuesday, Ben Simmons had the flu, Dario Saric probably hadn't eaten solid food in 24 hours, both Joel Embiid and J.J. Redick were out, and the Sixers were gonna have to beat a Bucks team at risk of losing their first-round draft pick with a loss -- all on the second night of a back-to-back, after playing (and winning) 15 games in four weeks. Like... it should've at least been a challenge, right? 

Not so much. The game lasted maybe ten minutes before being Sharpie-able -- by the time the Sixers went up 40-12 with two minutes to go in the first, this thing was already about as over as third-wave ska. Maybe the Bucks didn't care about keeping their first-rounder as much as they wanted to duck Cleveland and Philly in the first round, or maybe they just got blitzed early and didn't have the resolve to fight back in Game 82. Either way, no LeBron on the Bucks sideline meant no real risk of a Milwaukee comeback, and Philly ended up winning this one 130-95. 

That's 52-30 for your Philadelphia 76ers, then, and an NBA record 16-game winning streak to close out the regular season. I remember having so many conversations in January and February -- including a bunch of one-sided ones on this blog -- about how the Sixers just needed to get through February, and the rest of their schedule would be cream cheese. Still, none of us could've anticipated it'd be this level of cream cheese -- that heavenly walnut raisin -- where the Sixers would go an entire month without a single dropped game, a single emotional let-up, a single schedule loss, a single s**t-happens no-show. Hell, only five of the wins were by single digits. Basketball isn't supposed to be this easy, for anyone, ever. 

Oh yeah, and for the ninth time in the last 18 games, our point guard had a triple-double. That's pretty remarkable in itself, but what made it particularly special last night was that it wasn't from Ben Simmons, who actually struggled to one of his worst stat lines of the season -- just four points on 1-6 shooting, with six boards, seven dimes and four turnovers. Rather, it was Markelle Fultz who provided the spectacular for the Sixers, putting up a resounding 13-10-10 in 25 minutes off the bench for Philly, becoming the youngest player ever to post a triple-double (and getting mobbed by his teammates for the achievement). You couldn't have asked for a more feel-good capper to the Sixers' season than our No. 1 overall pick, who so many had written off as a bust before he'd even played five games as a pro, casually making NBA history in his final game of the regular season. 

What more can you say about this Philadelphia 76ers season, really? After four years of historic losing, how do you begin come to grips with following a team whose 52-30 record probably undersells how good they've been? What kind of sense is there to be made of a team that goes from "they *could* make the playoffs" to "they *could* win the NBA championship" in the space of three months? How do you try to explain to your kids that the 19-year-old who just posted a triple-double in a season-closing must-win game isn't even close to the best rookie point guard on your team? In what world is this Sixers team allowed to be as good as they've been the last eight games without their most important player? You have to laugh, it's all so cosmically silly. 

So, the three seed. The Sixers got that. Thanks to the putrid final-day showings from the Bucks and the eighth-seeded Wizards, they'll host the sixth-seeded Miami Heat in the first round, with the winner of Celtics-Bucks awaiting in the conference semis should the Sixers advance. And at the risk of getting ahead of myself, I'll ask The700Level readers to do me the personal favor of not making the mistake of underestimating the Heat, who are extremely tough and who've basically played the Sixers even all season. The Sixers may be favorites in this series, but they are not even close to a sure thing. 

But who cares about the postseason, really? I don't want to talk about that yet. This regular season was so much fun, and such a triumph -- at least by Joel-Embiid-didn't-play-65-games standards -- that the playoffs almost seem like an afterthought to me right now. These 82 games provided all the ammo Sixers fans will ever night to forever combat the Enemies of the Process, and getting to watch Joel and Ben and Dario and Markelle has been validation for every decision the Sixers ever made that brought us here. (Except for the Nerlens Noel trade, of course, which I'll still be megaphoning about in protest as we parade down Broad Street for the third straight June.) It's been six months of Hoagiefest at the Wells Fargo Center, and I've loved it more than I knew was possible. 

Before we get into the playoff matchups and all that, I hope you'll all take a day to reflect on just how special this has all been. We have an irritating tendency in American pro sports to let playoff success or lack thereof color everything that came before it, as if we don't spend the great majority of our basketball-fan lives watching the regular season. There's obviously big things still to come for these Sixers, both in the short term and long term, but please don't let anticipation of those overshadow how big these last 82 games have been, too. Fanbases go entire generations without a season like this. The Sixers went 17 years without a season like this. It's a short life. Trust the Process. 

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton wasn't the first player to wear a mask in the NBA but sometimes it feels like he was.

Newsweek caught up with Rip this week to talk about his mask-wearing days and to see if he had any words of wisdom for Joel Embiid. Hamilton first wore a mask for breaking his nose, but he continued to wear it for the remainder of his career.

Embiid made his first playoff appearance of his career last night in Miami while rocking a new mask complete with a custom visor to protect his eyes. It was clearly bothering him but he didn't let it dictate his play.

“It was difficult,” Embiid said of the mask. “But to me it wasn’t really about getting used to it because at the end of the day, no matter how much it bothers me, I’ve still got to be a basketball player."

Hamilton has famously said that he embraced the mask to the point of it becoming his "Batman cape" which allowed him to be more aggresive.

"Over a period of time I started to get used to it. As basketball players, a lot of times you go to the basket and it’s a lot of elbows being thrown, guys are getting poked in the eye," he told Newsweek this week. "You tend to clench up because you don’t want to get hit in the face. Once I started wearing that mask I wasn’t clenching up no more. I was willing to take contact more. I was able to get to the free throw line more because now I’m not scared of getting hit in the face. It kind of made me into a more aggressive and better basketball player."

Hamilton's message to Embiid prior to the series?

"Embrace it. Make it cool. Make it fun. Make it like a prop. Don’t get caught up in saying like, 'I got a piece of plastic on my face. I’m worrying about how I look, I’m worrying about my perception when I shoot.' When you’re out there in, like, shooting drills, don’t be so caught up in putting the mask on and trying to worry about how you shoot with it on. Put it on in the game and just wear it because our game is a non-thinking sport. React. You gotta read and react as quick as possible. The less thinking you do, the better you’ll be."

Rip also took notice of Embiid's frustration with the mask following the game. He encouraged Jo that it only gets easier.

I’ve thrown my mask off numerous times lil bro @joelembiid ...It will get more comfortable game by game ..Trust The Process. #MaskOnMaskOff#YouGotTheJuiceNow #Holdat #Yessir#Mask #TnT #nba #nbaplayoffs #sixers#sixersvsheat #LoveThisGame

Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs — S Tre Sullivan

AP Images

Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs — S Tre Sullivan

The Eagles don’t hit the practice field as a team for another five weeks, yet each year coaches point to players who distinguish themselves during the months of April and May. These are the players with the most to gain in phases one and two of OTAs.

There isn’t an unheralded prospect in better position to climb the Eagles’ depth chart this spring than Tre Sullivan.

Never mind the fact that vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas just got done lauding Sullivan’s performance in a pre-draft interview on Thursday. The 24-year-old also happens to be one of only four safeties on the Eagles roster for the time being, creating a huge opportunity for an undrafted free agent from Shepherd College.

Competition will come soon enough, as safety is an obvious target for the Eagles in the upcoming draft. Even then, Sullivan could find himself in the mix for a big role with a good spring.

Last season, Corey Graham was the Eagles’ third safety behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Graham, a free agent departure, wound up playing nearly 40 percent of the team’s snaps.

This isn’t merely a backup job. There’s serious playing time at stake – and Sullivan can get a jump on the competition.

Sullivan made a name for himself in last year’s preseason opener against the Packers with a vicious hit on wide receiver Malachi Dupre. It was a scary moment, as Dupre was knocked out by the collision, but also a clean play and an example of the defensive back’s physicality.

Sullivan forced a fumble on the hit and finished with four tackles. He would go on to acquit himself well in three other preseason games, eventually landing on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Listed at 6-foot-0, 200 pounds, Sullivan is a relatively average size for a safety, but plays downhill and hits like a truck.

The Eagles liked the instincts and aggressiveness they saw on the field. Now, Sullivan has a chance to work out and learn from coaches in an environment where there really aren’t any other young players right now and he can be the focus of a lot of attention. Phases one and two of OTAs and the two weeks before the draft in particular could be a pivotal period.

If Sullivan impresses during these early stages, it could go a long way toward solidifying his place with the team.

Even if Sullivan is bested for the third safety spot, he could still wind up on the 53-man roster. The Eagles may opt to carry five since Chris Maragos primarily plays on special teams.

Sullivan will likely enter training camp as a player who’s considered to be on the bubble, and what he does when the pads go on will be most important. However, if he showed up and really nailed these workouts, that could go a long way toward how the team views him heading into this summer.