After the Sixers’ first three-game losing streak of the season, the team secured back-to-back 50-win seasons by beating the Bulls Saturday night.
With Miami up next on Tuesday and Chicago again Wednesday, the Sixers’ magic number to clinch the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference is one. The Celtics’ final two games are against the Magic on Sunday night and the Wizards on Tuesday night.
Let’s get into our final weekly observations of the season:
• Back on Dec. 11, about a month after the Sixers had acquired Jimmy Butler, Brett Brown was asked whether he thought this season’s bench was better than last season’s.
“No,” he replied.
“Ersan and Marco.”
Four or so months later, Brown’s straightforward assessment still seems sound. The Sixers’ bench is a plus-4 through 80 games, good for 12th in the NBA. They’re a minus-11 in 26 games since the trade deadline, 16th in the league.
With Belinelli and Ilyasova, the Sixers won 20 of their final 23 regular-season games in 2017-18 and the bench was sixth best in the NBA during that stretch.
The positive spin for the Sixers is regular-season stats don’t mean everything. Belinelli and Ilyasova could both score better than any player on the Sixers’ current bench, but the two struggled to defend in the Celtics series.
The bench certainly has its flaws. Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden have no playoff experience and James Ennis is hurt. Jonathon Simmons was unimpressive in limited opportunities and Boban Marjanovic has been an automatic target for opposing offenses. T.J. McConnell’s pick-and-roll defense has been poor. Mike Scott, a Sixer for two months, is the most reliable member of the rotation.
All that granted, Ennis, Scott, Bolden, Smith and Simmons are each average to above-average defenders, unlike Belinelli and Ilyasova. They won’t all see significant time in the playoffs, but Brown at least has a couple more reasonable defensive options than he did last year.
• It feels like we’ve all just been waiting for the playoffs to start for months, and the Sixers played that way much of this past week, especially in losses to the Mavs on Monday and the Hawks on Wednesday — unfocused and unmotivated. Joel Embiid’s absence was obviously a major factor as well.
It will be a relief for players, coaches, fans — everyone associated with the Sixers — when all the speculation about the playoffs stops and the the real thing begins.
• While we’re on the topic of speculation, the likeliest first-round opponents for the Sixers are the Nets, Magic and Pistons.
The Magic might be the most difficult to play of that group. Orlando is 18-8 with the best net rating and best defensive rating in the Eastern Conference since the trade deadline. The Sixers’ 21-point loss in Orlando on March 25 was their worst with Joel Embiid of the new year.
Brown has also spoken candidly about how the Nets' guards expose the Sixers’ perimeter defense. None of the matchups would likely be a breeze, but the Sixers have much more talent than Brooklyn, Orlando or Detroit — whose biggest problem remains not giving Blake Griffin enough help. They’re too good to lose in the first round.
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