| The Sixers defeated two of the best teams in the East, including one that’s been in their head for quite some time |
You have to beat the best, to be the best
In one of their biggest tests of the season, the Sixers came away with a 130-125 win over the league leading Milwaukee Bucks. In doing so, they clinched a playoff birth for the second consecutive season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 52, but no one else produced more than 20. The Sixers were carried by Embiid, as well as strong second half performances from Jimmy Butler (27 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals) and JJ Redick (19 points on 4-4 from three).
It was arguably the best win of the season for the Sixers. The Bucks are a juggernaut this year and as much of a measuring stick as Golden State is in the West. The Bucks did lose Malcolm Brogdon for the next six to eight weeks, which undoubtedly hurts going into the playoffs. On that timeline he would miss all of the rest of the regular season, and likely the entire first round of the playoffs. It may not affect the Sixers immediately, but in the event of a second round matchup, the Bucks would be without their fourth leading scorer at 15.6 points per game.
Of course, because of the rivalry, the Sixers truly measure themselves against the Boston Celtics. In the final meeting of the regular season, the Sixers finally got their first win in a dramatic 118-115 victory. Jimmy Butler’s 15 points in the fourth quarter and dagger jumpshot with four seconds left sealed the win.
This was the first game against Boston since trading for Tobias Harris, so it was important to see how their new lineup stacked up against the Celtics. For the most part, it was a good result. The starters (Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Butler, and JJ Redick) combined for 110 of the team’s points. In order to defeat Boston, the starters have to be good. That much is obvious. But they Sixers will also need more from their bench. For much of this recent game, the Celtics were without Aron Baynes (sprained his ankle) and Marcus Smart, who was ejected after shoving Embiid in retalation for being elbowed on a screen.
Gordon Hayward didn’t play in this game either. Boston is a good team because of their depth. They controlled much of this game thanks to Terry Rozier (20 points on 4/8 from three). The highest scoring player on the Sixers bench, meanwhile, was Mike Scott with 4 points. TJ McConnell was also ineffective. Boban Marjanovic only played five minutes because he simply couldn’t keep up on switches or defend in space. Unless Baynes is on the floor, Boban might be unplayable in a potential playoff series vesus the Celtics.
But ultimately this was a huge confidence boost for the Sixers. They might not see the Celtics until the Eastern Conference finals, but with a re-made roster and a go-to player in crunch time, Philly has to feel better about their chances than they did just a week ago.
Embiid’s return underscores his importance
Embiid returned from knee soreness two Sundays ago versus the Indiana Pacers. He’s immediately spurred the team to five straight wins (not including the win over Charlotte in which Embiid sat out to rest). He averaged 29 points, 17 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, a 1 steal per game. The MVP race might be a toss up between Giannis and James Harden at this point, but Embiid has as good a case as any other player.
Even when he’s not performing at his best, Embiid has been crucial in late game situations. He collected four blocks against the Sacramento Kings, including a remarkable one on Willie Cauley-Stein late in the fourth.
Against Cleveland, Embiid exploded for one of the his best dunks ever in a one point game with under a minute to play.
Battle for the 3rd Seed
The recent string of wins was important because it solidified the Sixers’ grip on the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers won the season series three games to one, and guaranteed themselves a tiebreaker over Indiana. They are now 3.5 games up on the Pacers, and 4 games ahead of Boston. Barring a total collapse, Philadelphia would have home court in a series with either. How much stock one puts into home court advantage varies from person to person. But there is no denying how good the Sixers are at home. They are 59-20 at home in the last two seasons, giving them one of the best home court advantages in the league.
Brown on Lowe Post
ESPN’s Zach Lowe has one of the best NBA podcasts out there at the moment. His guest last week was Sixers head coach Brett Brown. It’s a great interview where Brown speaks about his role in the recent trade for Tobias Harris trade, the relationship between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and how he remained positive during the lowest points of The Process. They even get down into the weeds with some basketball strategy and philosophy. I think that every fan of the team should listen to it; both Brown critics and supporters.
James Ennis solidifying place in the rotation
After their moves at the trade deadline, the Sixers had a question to answer; who would their first wing off the bench be? Jonathon Simmons came over in the Markelle Fultz trade, but hasn’t shown much to warrant significant minutes. Zhaire Smith continues to rehab with the G-League Delaware Blue Coats.
That has left another trade deadline acquisition to fill the void. James Ennis came over in a trade with the Houston Rockets, and he has taken the backup spot and ran with it. Since the beginning of March, he’s averaged nearly 18 minutes per game, and while his counting stats don’t jump off the page, he’s earned the respect of his teammates.
Jimmy Butler, perhaps the most competitive player on the Sixers, had strong praise for the fifth year pro.
“I really respect people that grind, especially the way that I do it, because we get up early and go all day, then go back at night,” Butler said of Ennis last week. “For him to do what I do, it’s not easy — it’s really not. He loves the game and loves to work, and those are all good things.”