What's at stake over the next month — and, thus, on Thursday night — could be nothing less than survival. It sounds dramatic, but that is the story the NBA history book tells. In the five postseasons that have passed since the lockout, home teams are 134-90 in first-round games, while the team with home-court advantage in a series has advanced to the next round in 31 of 40 instances.
Which brings us to Thursday night, and the Sixers taking on the Heat, and another opportunity for this surprising young team to show us how fast it can grow. With 19 games remaining, the Eastern Conference standings suggest there are still two home playoff seeds up for grabs. In Miami, the Sixers have a date with one of the five other teams who are currently in the running, a mere four games separating the entire pack.
The prize is a significant one for all involved, in particular the Sixers. They have not been an especially bad team away from the Wells Fargo Center (15-18), but they have been a whole lot better playing at home (20-10). Perhaps some of that is due to circumstances outside their control, like nine days ago in Miami: Dwyane Wade put an 87-85 deficit on his shoulders and outscored them 15-14 down the stretch — and assisted on the only Miami basket he didn't score. Sometimes, Hall of Famers are going to get their buckets, regardless of the steps you take to prevent them.
Maybe this was also the case in Milwaukee earlier this week, when Giannis Antetokounmpo wreaked havoc in a 118-110 loss. The Sixers aren't the first team to struggle to guard him, and they won't be the last.
Yet the numbers are the numbers, and the ones that measure defensive performance say the Sixers are giving up a lot more scoring on the road. At home, only two teams in the NBA have held opponents to fewer than the 103.8 points the Sixers are allowing per 100 possessions. On the road, that number jumps up to 109.8, which ranks 13th. Only two teams in the league have a wider home/road split: the Jazz, who allow 6.4 points more per 100 possessions, and the Lakers, who allow 7.1.
The disparity could be explained in whole or in part by the quality of opponents the Sixers have faced on the road versus at home, but it's worth noting that their five highest point totals allowed on the road have come against opponents they've played an equal number of times at home. Besides, on the offensive end, their production has been relatively stable. As of Wednesday, they were scoring only 1.7 fewer points per 100 possessions on the road than at home. Still, combine that with their home/road defensive disparity and the Sixers are getting outscored by opponents by 1.6 points per 100 possession at home while outscoring them by 6.1 points per 100 on the road, a net difference of minus-7.7 points that is the sixth-largest in the NBA and the largest among the eight Eastern Conference teams currently in playoff position.
None of this should surprise us. The grind of an NBA season can shock even a veteran's system, and the Sixers are a team built around two players who are currently involved in the longest season of their lives. The fact that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have carried the Sixers this far already speaks volumes for the long-term potential of this roster.
Yet the here and now is very much within reach. Given that they are currently No. 6, it probably isn't accurate to say that they are in the driver's seat for a top-four seed. But they do have the benefit of a schedule that is by far the easiest of that six-pack of teams currently clustered from No. 3 to 8. Thursday's game against Miami is one of only six that remain against teams who are currently .500 or better. None of the other five teams in the mix has fewer than nine.