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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