76ers

Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

The expectations were high for the Sixers coming into the season.

Two blockbuster trades later and those expectations have only grown.

After taking care of the Brooklyn Nets with a 122-100 beating in Game 5 Tuesday night (see observations), they’ve made it into the Eastern Conference’s final four where they’ll face a stiff test in the Toronto Raptors. 

Even Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, whose team was eliminated after being thoroughly dominated in Game 5, said the Sixers “can compete for a championship.”

“That’s what we think,” Joel Embiid said. “We think we can win it all. Obviously, it is going to take a lot. You’ve got some great teams in the league. We’re about to play one of them and I don’t know who the next one is going to be, either Milwaukee or Boston, and then you’ve got the West, which is pretty tough. We just got to take one game at a time, but we understand that we’ve got all the talent that we need, especially to win it all.”

The Sixers haven’t shied away from expectations since general manager Elton Brand pulled off deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. After losing Game 1, it put a bit of a damper to the start of a postseason filled with so much hope.

The uneasiness wasn’t cured after having a narrow halftime lead in Game 2, but a tongue lashing by Brett Brown led to a record-setting third quarter. They faced even more misfortune when they found out Embiid was going to miss Game 3, but Ben Simmons’ strong performance carried them to a win. They found themselves down for most of Game 4, but executed down the stretch to win a thriller.

Then, with a chance to end the series at home, they jumped all over the Nets on their way to a fourth straight win. It was an impressive response from a team that’s still working out the kinks of a sometimes-dominant starting five.

Sometimes a little adversity is good for a group still trying to come together.

“I think if you’re going through a very intense, pressure-filled series, it can bring you together, make you better and stronger as a team, or it can break you,” JJ Redick said. “This series brought us together and obviously from here it just gets tougher.”

It really does.

The Sixers’ struggles against the Raptors are well-documented. Toronto is not Brooklyn. It's playoff tested and features arguably the best two-way player in basketball in Kawhi Leonard.

But for the Sixers to get to where they want to go, they need to figure out a way to accelerate the development of their chemistry and beat one of the league’s best.

“We have a team that is slowly coming together,” Brown said. “They don’t have the luxury of lots of games and lots of context to share upon … this is good. Beating Brooklyn and advancing to the second round … this is good. It can’t be discredited as, ‘Oh, you should.’ On paper, we should, but you’re still playing against a team that was a team … 

“I will answer it like that and conclude with we still have more to do — a lot more to do.”

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Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

NBC Sports Philadelphia is re-airing Game 3 of the Sixers-Heat 2018 playoff series Sunday night at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

At 26 years old, Joel Embiid has played 19 career playoff games. The lead-up to the first one was full of frustration, drama and angst.

Minutes after the Sixers’ 17-game winning streak ended with a loss to the Heat in Game 2, Embiid posted on his Instagram story, “F---ing sick and tired of being babied.” 

He’d been a glum observer from the sidelines that night, still out with an orbital fracture of the left eye he’d sustained in a collision with Markelle Fultz on March 28, and had seen his teammates cool off from three-point range and allow a 36-year-old Dwyane Wade to score 28 points. Embiid wanted to play, thought he should be permitted to and figured it couldn’t hurt to let the world know how he felt. 

Not for the first time — and certainly not for the last, either — Brett Brown found himself fielding awkward questions about how his players were being handled medically. 

“He just wants to play basketball," he said at the podium. “He wants to be with his team, he wants to play in front of the fans and he wants to see this through. When he’s not able to do that, he gets frustrated, and I respect his frustrations. … I do know the spirit he delivered that [Instagram story] you just talked about reflects my conversations with him.

"It’s completely driven by team, competitiveness, I want to play basketball, that type of feeling more than anything.”

Thanks to a high-tech, customized mask with goggles that was made of polypropylene and embedded carbon fiber filaments, Embiid was cleared for Game 3 in Miami, resembling the "Batman" villain Bane and the rapper MF Doom. The mask was an unavoidable nuisance — Embiid removed it from his face on free throws — but it allowed him to play basketball again, shifting the drama from social media to the court.

Embiid tossed the mask up in the air, spiked it on the floor and generally didn’t treat the device with much reverence. Head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson got a good amount of screen time as the Sixers’ medical staff ran repairs and ferried masks out to Embiid. Justise Winslow was not amused by the situation. When he saw the mask lying on the ground around the foul line at one point in the second quarter, he stepped on it, then unsuccessfully tried to break it with his hands.

"He kept throwing it on the ground. I don't know if he didn't like it or what,” Winslow, who was later fined $15,000 for the incident, told reporters. “I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

The back-and-forth with Winslow seemed to invigorate Embiid, though he probably didn’t require any additional fuel.

“Little do they know, I have about 50 of them,” he said to reporters in Miami. “It’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. It’s going to be a nightmare for them, too.” 

It was a casually bold prognostication, and also not an entirely outrageous one. The Sixers sprinted away from the Heat in Game 3, turning a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter into a 20-point win. They were, without a doubt, the better team when Embiid played.

We haven’t actually mentioned anything yet about how Embiid played. If he didn’t have a black mask shielding his face, the cliched (but accurate) description of his performance would be that he looked like himself. Embiid had 23 points in 30 minutes, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He made three threes, drew 15 free throws and protected the rim well, limiting Heat players to 4 for 14 shooting on field goals he defended. 

Mask on or mask off, regular season or playoffs, he was clearly going to be the main story more often than not. 

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Jim Lynam laments Charles Barkley trade, a lesson current Sixers can learn from with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

Jim Lynam laments Charles Barkley trade, a lesson current Sixers can learn from with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

June 17, 1992, is a day that will live in infamy among Sixers fans. That’s when the team traded six-time All-Star Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry.

Barkley would go on to make five more All-Star teams, win a league MVP and eventually be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Sixers wouldn’t win more than 30 games in a season until Allen Iverson’s second season in 1997-98.

It’s a move that still stings — especially to one of the people that had a hand in making it.

As a guest on the Sixers Talk podcast, Coach Jim Lynam expressed his regret with the deal despite Barkley wanting out.

“Charles, from his perspective, he made it known in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to be here,” Lynam said. “And I would say in hindsight — this is just me, my own personal opinion — we made a mistake in listening to him. I tell Charles that to this day.”

Barkley was taken fifth overall in 1984, joining a Sixers team that was a year removed from a championship and featured Hall of Famers Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones, and two-time All-Star Andrew Toney. 

In 1986, the Sixers traded away Malone in another ill-fated move. Barkley has repeatedly spoken about the profound impact Malone had on not only his career but his life. Erving retired after the 1986-87 season. Cheeks was traded in 1989. Jones retired a year before Erving. Toney’s career was derailed by a foot injury and he was forced into retirement in 1988 at the age of 30.

That left Barkley with little help or guidance as he was entering the prime of his career. By the time Lynam took over as head coach in the middle of the 1987-88 season, the Sixers didn’t resemble the team Barkley had joined. Lynam would lead the team to the playoffs the next three seasons, losing to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the second round twice.

As Lynam moved into the front office as GM in 1992, he knew Barkley was not pleased with the team’s standing after a 35-47 season. Still, he wishes he and the team handled it differently.

A letter from a fan reacting to the move still sticks in Lynam’s mind. 

I got one letter in particular that I saved over the years and it started out, ‘Dear Coach Lynam,’ and it’s the first line, ‘Never trade a super[star].’ Literally, word for word. Second line, ‘Never trade a super[star].’ The guy repeated that line like 10 times. ‘Never trade a super[star].’ It was a classic of a letter, but end of story, the fella was right. 

“You can’t trade star, star talent unless you’re getting star, star talent in return, which is rarely the case. Somehow, some way you have to figure it out and work your way around it. Hindsight, yeah, a mistake by Jim Lynam and the 76ers and all who had any part of it.

It's a lesson Lynam learned the hard way and has influenced the way he thinks about the current iteration of the team.

As an analyst on Sixers Pre- and Postgame Live, Lynam watches Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on a nightly basis. It’s no secret the All-Star duo isn’t an ideal fit on the court, which has led some to wonder if the Sixers should explore a trade.

While he acknowledges the difficulty in getting it all to work, he also knows from his experience with Barkley that the solution is not to trade star players.

As it relates to current times, yeah, I think there is a problem here in terms of how do you best blend the talents of these two star players, Embiid and Simmons. Well, guess what, that’s what it’s about. Solving problems. There’s an old phrase, problems are meant to be solved, not rejoiced over. You can talk about them all day on talk radio and fine, that’s great for that segment of the population. 

“If you’re in the Sixers’ side of it, you got to figure this stuff out and I think these guys are doing a pretty good job of working toward that end. It’s not gonna be snap your fingers and go out and you win 70 games and two straight championships. It’s a process, no pun intended. … I have confidence that when it’s all said and done and you’re looking back on this years from now, you will see championships as a result.

You can listen to the entire Sixers Talk podcast with Lynam below.

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