Everyone wonders how LeBron James feels about the potential of playing with the 76ers next season, but the more interesting thing to know might be how he feels about the potential of playing against them this May. Here’s an educated guess: not good. Same goes for the folks up in Boston and Toronto and those down in D.C. The thought has to be lurking in all of their minds.
Not the Sixers. Anybody but them.
Just ask the guys in the locker room who have been there before. There aren’t many, but the few that are? They know. Ersan Illyasova had plenty of offers to go other places when his time with the Hawks came to an end last week. He’s been to the playoffs four times in his career, and he knows the kind of team that can make noise once there.
“Why not?,” the 11-year veteran said after his second game back with the team that traded him away last season. “I think when you look at the Eastern Conference, everybody is close to each other. I think everybody is beatable. I think at this point it’s all about us and the way we play.”
The Sixers were already better than any of us could have imagined they would be at this point, and they’ve only gotten better. If that wasn’t obvious in Thursday night’s 108-97 win over the Cavaliers, then Friday’s encore should’ve erased all doubt.
It was one of those games when the circumstance said to bet big on the dog. The Sixers were playing their fifth game in seven days, the previous night’s win in Cleveland their third straight on the road against an opponent in playoff position. They’d lost big to the Wizards and small to the Heat before orchestrating one of their most impressive and emotional victories of the season, a resounding wire-to-wire win whose implications should have echoed throughout the league. They celebrated by sitting on the runway as their plane was de-iced, and by the time most of them got home there were barely 12 hours left before they had to report to work again.
For the first half, they looked like the team you might’ve expected to see: trailing by eight points at the break and having a devil of a time keeping Hornets star Kemba Walker in front of them. In the NBA, letdown nights like these are an inevitable part of life for all but the most bulletproof of teams. A desperate opponent, a hot point guard, another week on the road about to begin.
But a few minutes into the third quarter, the Sixers started to do what they’ve done all season, which is recalibrate our expectations. First came a one-handed dunk by Joel Embiid off a beautiful pass from Dario Saric. Then, Embiid again, this time a transition alley-oop from Ben Simmons. Up to that point, the fans at the Wells Fargo Center had remained mostly in their seats. From that point on, they were rocking.
Three minutes left: Simmons makes an explosive first step to the left and then rises up effortlessly for the two-handed power jam. Next possession: Embiid gets the ball back-to-the-basket in the right post, sees Illyasova cutting backdoor out of the corner of his eye and and flicks a beautiful bounce pass without turning around for a layup that puts the Sixers up five.
“I mean, you all follow us,” coach Brett Brown said after the 110-99 win. “I sit there and coach us and we’ve seen growth, you can’t deny that, and I think for all of us to watch how the team has responded in execution and belief in close games is not to be disputed. It’s real for me and the numbers would say so, too.”
It’s somewhat surreal to listen to Brown and his players talk about the upcoming months. With a 34-27 record that gives the Sixers a 5 1/2 -game cushion over the current No. 9 team in the conference, their focus is broadening from merely making the playoffs to making a run once they get there. In a win over the Magic on Feb. 24, Brown stuck with his bench through a late Orlando rally. Before Friday’s win over the Hornets, he mentioned that he would be making a concerted effort to get reserves Richaun Holmes and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot some action. He has tinkered with the pick-and-roll defenses he deploys to better prepare his players for life in a seven-game series.
“A playoff game is different from a regular-season game,” said veteran newcomer Marco Belinelli, who won a championship with the Spurs in 2013-14 and has played in four postseasons overall. “The physicality is different. Everything is prepared to stop you. It’s not easy, but I think we have the skills, the smartness. We can be good.”
The Sixers have won 20 of 29 games since Christmas Day, a mark equaled or bettered by only four teams in the league. Entering Saturday, the Warriors and Rockets were 23-7, the Raptors were 21-9, and the Clippers were tied with the Sixers at 20-9. During that stretch, the Sixers have boasted the fourth-best scoring defense in the league, holding opponents to 102.9 points per 100 possessions. They are one of only four teams in the Eastern Conference that has won at least 50 percent of its games against teams with a record of .500 or better, and they’ve played more such games than any other Eastern Conference team that is currently in playoff position.
With one of the easiest schedules in the league remaining and a pivotal addition in Illyasova, the Sixers are just one game out of a playoff seed that would give them home-court advantage in the opening round. They have won 13 straight games at the Wells Fargo Center dating back to before Christmas. Nobody is suggesting they have reached the level of a title contender. But the recent speculation about James’ free agency shouldn’t ignore that they are plenty dangerous without him.