20 Sixers storylines for the final 20 games
At 37-25, the Sixers have 20 games left before the playoffs begin. Brian Brennan looks at 20 storylines to watch.
(All photos courtesy of USA Today Images.)
1. When will Simmons return?
Everything starts here. It’s hard to envision any kind of sustained playoff run for the Sixers without having both of their All-Stars healthy from the jump. Joel Embiid’s left shoulder sprain appears to be minor, but we’re still about a week away from when the nerve impingement in Simmons’ back will be re-evaluated. If Simmons can return before the playoffs, hopefully the starting five can get into a little bit of a rhythm before the playoffs begin. Speaking of that starting five …
2. Will Horford go back to the bench?
If Embiid returns relatively soon, will Brett Brown put Al Horford back on the bench? That experiment lasted two games and five minutes before Simmons went down with his back injury and Brown went back to Horford in the starting five. There were some great signs in the two full games when Horford came off the bench. In the home win over the Clippers, Simmons and Embiid had great success playing off each other in the paint with Horford out of the mix. The Sixers brought Horford to Philly in large part because of his playoff experience. Would Brown really start a wing with significantly less playoff experience with so much at stake?
3. Will Brown lighten the load on Embiid?
Whenever Embiid returns, it will be interesting to see how many minutes he plays, especially while Simmons remains out of action. Will Brown be able to resist the urge to play Embiid 35-plus minutes to win close games in hopes of catching Miami for the No. 4 seed in the East? The Sixers’ home/road disparity suggests it could be a worthy pursuit. But keeping Embiid healthy must be the paramount concern.
4. Better to be 6th than 5th?
The Indiana Pacers have won four straight games to move ahead of the Sixers by a half game, dropping the Sixers into the sixth spot in the East. If the Sixers’ injuries make it unwise to go all-out and chase down Miami for the fourth seed, you could argue it could be better to finish sixth rather than fifth. That would likely mean a first-round matchup with Toronto or Boston rather than Miami. Both series would be difficult, but we know that Embiid presents major matchup problems for Boston. Toronto still must prove it can win in the playoffs without Kawhi Leonard. The other obvious benefit to the sixth seed is you’d avoid any potential matchup with the Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals.
5. Playoff preview vs. Toronto?
The Sixers are done playing the Celtics, winning the regular-season series 3-1. The Raptors will visit the Wells Fargo Center one more time, on March 18. Toronto has been battling injuries to Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet, but the intensity in that game could be sky-high, especially if it appears the two teams are on a collision course to meet in the playoffs. The Raptors will need every win they can get down the stretch as they fight it out with Boston for the No. 2 seed, because that’s essentially the difference between playing the Sixers/Pacers in the first round instead of the Magic or Nets.
6. Can the Sixers win the 'easy' road games?
When you’re 9-23 on the road, it’s hard to say any road game should be an easy win. That said, the Sixers have road games against the tankalicious trio of Charlotte, Minnesota and Chicago before the end of March. It would be nice to win those games to gain some measure of confidence away from home.
7. Sixers vs. Rockets: Who blinks first?
The Houston Rockets’ offense has shredded the rest of the league since trading Clint Capela to open the floor for James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The Rockets play the 6-foot-5 PJ Tucker at center and take their chances that they can render opposing centers unplayable. They’ve usually been right, but those other teams didn’t have Embiid. It will be fascinating to see which team blinks first when the Rockets visit Philadelphia on March 31. It will be the NBA’s ultimate contrast of styles.
8. Embiid vs. Zion
Speaking of must-see TV, April 11 should be one of the most-anticipated games of the season, when rookie sensation Zion Williamson matches up with Embiid for the first time. Williamson has lived up to all the hype, with defenders bouncing off him like a young Charles Barkley. If he tries to rise up on Embiid, that moment alone will be worth the cost of admission.
9. Korkmaz vs. elite teams
We’ve seen Furkan Korkmaz have monster games against the Knicks and the Bulls, but can he knock down big shots and defend well enough to stay on the floor against the Raptors, Bucks and Rockets? Those will be the questions Brown needs to answer as he tries to solidify his playoff rotation.
10. The rest of the bench
It’s hard to imagine the Sixers going more than nine deep when the playoffs begin. It seems like Korkmaz, Alec Burks and Matisse Thybulle have an edge to make the rotation, but what happens with the rest of the bench? Assuming Simmons comes back at some point, what happens with Shake Milton, who might be the best three-point shooter on the team? Speaking of Milton …
11. Could Shake be the 5th starter?
We’ve seen Korkmaz, Glenn Robinson III and Thybulle all get looks in the starting lineup at some point this season. But if Brown elects to send Horford back to the bench, could Shake Milton be the perfect fifth starter alongside Simmons, Embiid, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris? It’s a small sample size, but Milton has shown he can really shoot it from three and he’s likely a better two-way player than either Korkmaz or Thybulle at this point.
12. Can the Sixers go 39-2 at home?
The 1985-86 Celtics and the 2015-16 Spurs are the only teams in NBA history to go 40-1 at home. The Sixers can’t quite reach that mark, but an 11-0 home finish would equal the 1995-96 Bulls and the 2015-16 Warriors, among others, at 39-2. It won’t be easy, with home games remaining against Indiana, Toronto, Houston and Milwaukee.
13. Will Giannis shut it down?
Of course, with the Bucks running away with the Eastern Conference, the Bucks could choose to sit Giannis Antetokounmpo for that matchup against the Sixers on April 7. That’s game No. 78 for Milwaukee, so it’s conceivable that the Bucks have locked down home-court advantage throughout the entire playoffs by the time that game is played.
14. Sixers playing spoiler in the West
Memphis is trying to fight off a quartet of teams for the No. 8 seed in the West, with Portland, New Orleans, San Antonio and Sacramento all within four games of the Grizzlies. The Sixers play all of those teams down the stretch, including Memphis, so they’ll have plenty to say about who gets that No. 8 seed in the West.
15. Can the defense go up a level?
The preseason case for the Sixers reaching the Finals was that the starting five could potentially be dominant on defense. That hasn’t been the case, but we also haven’t seen those five gain much continuity, with the injury bug has biting time and time again. The defensive ceiling of that group remains incredibly high. If they can gain some momentum entering the playoffs, they could be a defensive nightmare in the playoffs.
16. Can Harris stay hot?
The Sixers’ best percentage three-point shooters this season have been bench players. But very quietly, Harris has gotten hot. Harris shot 41.7 percent from beyond the arc in February and if he can keep that going through March and April, he could be the long-distance shooter the starting five has desperately needed all season.
17. Can Richardson get hot?
On the other end of the spectrum, Richardson is struggling with his shot, shooting just 28 percent from the three-point line since the calendar flipped to 2020. If Richardson can’t hit three-point shots, playoff opponents are going to help off him and shade their defense somewhere else. He has to be able to make them pay.
18. Bradley Beal on a mission
Since being snubbed for the All-Star Game, Bradley Beal has averaged 35.3 points per game and has the Wizards within shouting distance of the No. 8 seed in the East. It’s unlikely the Wizards will get there, but Beal is playing like he has something to prove. He’ll be a handful in those two matchups with the Sixers, especially if Simmons misses either or both games.
19. The All-NBA teams
Simmons seemed like a lock to be named First Team All-Defense before going down with his back injury. He’s played 54 games to this point. Will he return in time to lock down that honor for the first time? Meanwhile, Embiid is once again in a fight with Nikola Jokic for first-team All-NBA honors. Could a monster final stretch from Embiid help him gain ground on The Joker?
20. The OKC pick
The Sixers get the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick this season if it falls outside the top 20. Right now, that pick is 21, which would go to the Sixers in a best-case scenario. To ultimately get that pick, the Sixers would likely need OKC to end up with a better record than the Mavericks, Pacers and yes, the Sixers. So any Sixers loss the rest of the way comes with a bit of a silver lining, especially if you think the Sixers ending up with the sixth seed would be a positive outcome.