I remember looking at the calendar at the beginning of 2018 and wondering if three weeks in, we weren't already going to be looking at the playoffs as a near-impossibility for the Sixers. Ten of their next 12 games were against teams in the playoff picture as the calendar turned -- including each of the next seven -- while the Sixers were two games under .500, having just finished a 5-10 December that included losses to the Kings, Bulls, Suns and Lakers. A 2-5 or 1-6 start to the new year and we would've had some serious work to do in order to catch up in February and March.
Well, uh, the Sixers appear to be slightly ahead of schedule. Instead of kicking off the year on a 2-5 or 1-6 run, they've instead burst through the door on a 5-1 tear -- still undefeated in North America in 2018 -- with the most recent win coming Saturday night with a closer-than-it-looked-but-also-not-totally 116-94 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, the Sixers don't have catching up to do to make it back on the right side of the postseason bubble; hell, at 22-20, they're already sixth in the East.
Say this for last night's game: The Sixers are really discovering every permutation of the blown-double-digit-lead game this season. It happened again last night, of course -- looked like they'd pull away in the second, instead let the Bucks battle back to recapture the lead in the second half -- but they got the cycle out of the way early enough that they were still able to reach escape velocity in the fourth quarter, ultimately winning by 22. Until they figure out the don't-blow-the-lead-at-all game, this is probably the most preferable version of the game so far.
Joel Embiid went for 29 and 9 on 12-19 shooting and dominated on both ends, ho-hum. Dario Saric (13-6-7) and Ben Simmons (16-8-9) both got most of the way to triple-doubles, while Robert Covington (13-5-3-4) hit multiple triples for the first time in four games. T.J. (11-3-7) was T.J. Even Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, filling in for an injured (and bad) Jerryd Bayless, was sparkling, scoring 16 on 5-9 shooting, with a +21 for his 30 minutes on the court. If he can give us anywhere near that production level on a consistent basis, it'll make the loss of JJ Redick for the rest of the month a whole lot more palatable for Brett Brown & Co.
And speaking of players being out -- boy, teams have sure been doing us a favor in spotting us one or two this month, huh? After a 2017 portion of the season where it felt like the Sixers were always the undermanned squad -- aside from one game against the John Wall-less Wizards which we nearly blew, and one against the Blazers without Damian Lillard which we actually did -- Philly has in six 2018 contests already faced the Spurs without Kawhi Leonard (and assorted other rotation cogs), the Celtics without Kyrie Irving and the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo or Malcolm Brogdon. Easier to deal with the Deer with Khris Middleton as your only real offensive concern, certainly, and we'll see Brogdon in Milwaukee soon enough.
Anyway, understandable that even our most formidable opponents are doing what they can to duck #SixersJanuary. The team is once again trending entirely in the right direction, the home crowd is feeling it, and Philadelphia basketball is as fun and as fearsome as it's been since... well, last January. This is our month, and we'll deal with all the weird crises sure to beset the squad in the months to come after Groundhog Day. For now, with absolutely nothing else going on in the world of Philadelphia sports, let's just be sure to take the time to enjoy it.