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2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

Though they’re calling “seeding games,” the Sixers’ primary concern in the contests leading up to the playoffs is not seeding.

“How do you go into the playoffs … how can you go into that date feeling like we’re the best we can be?” Brett Brown said on July 12. “Worrying too much about moving up because you could play this team or avoid that team, I stay away from that.” 

Through three games at Disney World, Brown wishes the Sixers were playing at a higher level. The team has gone 2-1, but that record includes a fourth quarter in which the Sixers allowed the Pacers to score 46 points, a game-saving shot from Shake Milton vs. the Spurs and a win over the 24-44 Wizards that was tight until the end. Ben Simmons exited Wednesday’s game against Washington early with a left knee injury

It’s been slower coming than I would’ve thought,” Brown said Wednesday. “I liked our practices, I thought … the preseason games you saw at times a dominant defense. We’ve started these three games, I think, very inconsistently. I think we do some good things offensively, defensively, and then you see head-scratching stuff. It hasn’t gone as quickly as I had hoped. But I see where I think it can end. 

“We’re still figuring out some things with how we’re playing the team and Shake (Milton) coming in and so on. But I think, for the most part, we’re trending in the right direction, just not as quickly as I wished.

Here's where the Sixers sit in the Eastern Conference: 

3. Boston Celtics 45-23 GB: 9 
4. Miami Heat 43-25 GB: 11
5. Indiana Pacers 42-26 GB: 12
6. Sixers 41-27 GB: 13 

Boston technically still has a chance to surpass the Raptors for the No. 2 seed and the Sixers aren’t eliminated from contention for the No. 3 seed, but both outcomes are very improbable. Kemba Walker sat out the latter half of a back-to-back Wednesday, a 149-115 Celtics win over the Nets, as the All-Star guard works through a left knee issue. After playing Toronto on Friday night, the Celtics will face Orlando, Memphis and Washington.

The current No. 4 and No. 5 seeds play each other twice in the remaining seeding games, which should be interesting. The Heat’s other opponents are the Bucks, Suns and Thunder, while the Pacers’ are the Suns, Lakers and Rockets. Before the NBA’s hiatus, Miami was 2-0 against Indiana. In case you were curious, T.J. Warren hasn’t dropped off much after his 53-point performance vs. the Sixers. He leads all scorers at Disney World with 39.7 points per game. 

Despite having the sixth-easiest strength of schedule, the Sixers don’t have great odds of rising. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives them a 72.8 percent chance at the No. 6 seed, 23.0 percent at No. 5 and just 4.1 percent at No. 4. Those probabilities are intuitive when you consider the Sixers have lost their season series vs. the Heat and Pacers. 

The Celtics are the Sixers’ most likely first-round opponent at the moment by a good margin, which would potentially leave the Sixers a path of Boston-Toronto-Milwaukee. One could make the argument that such a road is best for the Sixers, since the team won its season series over Boston, 3-1, and wouldn’t have to face the top-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing’s going to be easy for a No. 6 seed. 

We analyzed the Celtics, Heat and Pacers as possible first-round opponents for the Sixers here

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T.J. Warren outduels Joel Embiid as Sixers fall to Pacers

T.J. Warren outduels Joel Embiid as Sixers fall to Pacers

The Sixers' road woes continue ... even at a neutral site.

Behind a ridiculous shooting night by T.J. Warren, the Pacers beat the Sixers, 127-121, at Visa Athletic Center in Disney World in the first seeding game for both teams.

Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) and Mike Scott (right knee soreness) were out for the Sixers. Domantas Sabonis (plantar faciitis) and Malcom Brogdon (cervical strain) were sidelined for the Pacers.

The loss drops the Sixers to 39-27 and puts them a full game behind Indiana for the East's fifth seed. They'll "host" the Spurs Monday night (8 p.m./NBCSP).

Embiid and Simmons connecting

We talk a lot about the fit of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but generally talent wins out in the NBA. All of the Sixers’ best minutes appeared to be when the All-Star duo was on the floor together.

Brett Brown mentioned that he thought Simmons’ move to the four could actually make the pair more dangerous and that seemed to be the case. Operating from the elbow, Simmons found Embiid a couple times in high-low action. You can also see how it could help Simmons as a scorer to essentially be a quick move away from the rim. 

After Justin Holiday and Myles Turner got beat up early, the Pacers started sending a second defender to try to swipe the ball from the elbow and were more aggressive with double teams.

It was a mixed bag for a lot of the Sixers in the first game back, but the early returns on Embiid and Simmons were very good. Embiid was dominant, finishing with 41 points (15 of 23), 21 rebounds and three blocks in 34 minutes. Simmons had 19 points (8 of 14), 13 rebounds and four assists.

Shaky start

It was not a good start for Shake Milton as the team’s starting point guard. Milton was hounded full court by former Sixer T.J. McConnell and it led to a couple turnovers. It also led to Milton and Embiid having a fiery exchange on the sideline after the first quarter ended. In Milton’s defense, Embiid seemed to leave him out to dry with a couple lazy inbound passes, something we all know you can’t do with McConnell lurking.

Milton then picked up his fourth foul less than a minute into the second half and was replaced by veteran Raul Neto. Milton went scoreless in 19 minutes. It was a bit out of character for Milton. The second-year guard's poise has proven to be one his strongest traits, but that wasn't the case on Saturday.

All night the Sixers struggled getting into their offense. Whether it was Milton, Josh Richardson or Alec Burks, the team looked discombobulated in the half court all night. Some Neto minutes in the second quarter seemed to calm things down for a moment. Neto’s stints seemed to coincide with the Sixers’ best ball movement on the night. He was a steady influence with zero turnovers in 21 minutes.

Harris picking up where he left off

Tobias Harris finished the Sixers’ last scrimmage against the Mavericks on a strong note and appeared to carry that over into the first seeding game. Harris was aggressive attacking every mismatch, of which he had many. The most encouraging thing we’ve seen Saturday and in the final scrimmage is Harris playing downhill, blowing by people off the dribble and finishing strong at the basket.

Part of the reason the Sixers acquired Harris is because of his ability to space the floor for Embiid and Simmons, but he was a perfect scoring complement to the two Saturday. Harris had 30 points (12 of 29) and eight rebounds.

What a night for Warren

The two biggest issues for the Sixers Saturday were turnovers and Warren. They had 14 first-half turnovers which led to 20 Indiana points. They did better in the second half with just seven, which helped them take the lead.

But Warren went nuts. Warren is a good offensive player, but it just seems like he hasn’t missed against the Sixers this season. He had 29 first-half points on his way to pouring in a career-high 53. The hoop must've looked like an ocean when Warren hit a dagger three late in the fourth quarter. As hot as he was, the Sixers didn't do a good job finding him defensively.

Plenty of questions in the rotation

The Sixers’ bench was seriously lacking in depth going into last year’s postseason. While Brown has more options, there aren’t many proven commodities.

The one proven player he does have is Al Horford, who struggled in his early run. He committed three turnovers and was a minus-17 in 13 minutes in the first half. He was much better in the second half, dunking on his first touch and knocking down a couple jumpers. His minutes with Embiid went OK, relatively speaking.

Furkan Korkmaz was 0 for 2 and had issues defensively in just seven first-half minutes. Korkmaz was cold from the field during the last two scrimmages as well. He finished 0 for 4.

Though Burks did have a few turnovers, he made three threes and did show a little of his shot creation ability the team sorely needs. Rookie Matisse Thybulle didn’t stand out in a positive or negative way.

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What Victor Oladipo sitting out of NBA restart means for Sixers

What Victor Oladipo sitting out of NBA restart means for Sixers

Two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo will not play when the NBA season resumes in Orlando, he told The Athletic’s Shams Charania

Oladipo, who suffered a ruptured quadriceps tendon in January of 2019, returned to play 13 games this season for Indiana but decided it was best to be done for the year. He will still travel with the team to Disney World, according to Charania. 

I really want to play, and as a competitor and teammate this is tearing me apart,” Oladipo told Charania. “I feel like I’m at a great place in my rehab and getting closer and closer to 100 percent. With all the variables, from how I have to build my 5-on-5 workload back up, to the increased risk of a soft tissue injury which could delay my rehab, and the unknown exact set up of the bubble, I just can’t get my mind to being fully comfortable in playing. I have to be smart and this decision hasn’t been easy, but I truly believe continuing on the course I’m on and getting fully healthy for the 2020-21 season is the right decision for me. 

Oladipo’s decision is significant from the Sixers’ perspective. The Pacers and Sixers have identical 39-26 records, with Indiana sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference because they have a 2-1 edge in the regular-season series. The two teams are scheduled to play Aug. 1.

Indiana, Miami and Boston are the Sixers’ likely potential playoff matchups, which we explored in greater depth here

Joel Embiid missed both of the Sixers’ losses this season to the Pacers, first because of left knee soreness on Dec. 31 and then because of a torn ligament in his left ring finger on Jan. 13. Though the Pacers have a large starting frontcourt of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, Embiid has averaged 27.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 10 free throw attempts per game in nine career matchups vs. Indiana. His presence would certainly improve the Sixers’ chances.

While Oladipo was an excellent two-way player at his peak, he’s clearly still working his way back to top form and full health. He posted 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest this season, and the Pacers were 7-6 in those 13 games. 

The Pacers are still a strong team without him, even if they’re not exceptional in any one category. Sabonis made his first All-Star Game this season, while Malcolm Brogdon has been a nice fit despite a drastic downturn in his three-point shooting. Indiana has good depth in brothers Justin Holiday and Aaron Holiday, Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell. 

Brogdon on June 24 said he tested positive for the coronavirus, which is of course a bigger story than any on-court matters. He said that he’s doing well and plans to join the Pacers at Disney World.

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