There are a lot of ways to interpret what the Sixers have shown over the first four games of their first-round series against the Miami Heat. But one thing is clear: Tuesday’s potential Game 5 clincher at the Wells Fargo Center is no longer the prize it might have seemed throughout much of the regular season. Suddenly, the challenge isn’t to identify the reasons the Sixers are a legitimate NBA Finals threat, but the reasons they aren’t.
This is a reality that JJ Redick spoke about on Monday afternoon before ducking into a film session that Brett Brown held at the start of practice. When the 33-year-old shooting guard signed with the team last summer, the conventional wisdom suggested that the Sixers might be able to sneak into the postseason if everything worked out perfectly. Redick, who had appeared in the playoffs in each of the 11 seasons he had been in the NBA, wasn’t sure exactly what his new team was capable of.
“My hope was that we would figure out a way to get into the playoffs,” he said.
Now, after winning three of four games against the Heat, including two straight on the road, the Sixers are in a position to think a lot bigger. Out in Vegas, the latest odds have the Sixers as a 2-to-1 favorite to win the Eastern Conference, which trails only the Raptors, who sit at 3-to-2. If they close out the first round in Game 5, they will spend the rest of the week waiting for the winner of a Celtics-Bucks series that is suddenly tied at two games apiece after Boston had won the first two games.
The Celtics are emblematic of the way the outlook in the Eastern Conference has shifted over the course of the season. When the Sixers beat Boston, 89-80, on Jan. 18, their fourth and final meeting of the regular season, the thought was still that the Celtics were the team most likely to represent the East in the Finals. Since then, Boston has lost its best player in point guard Kyrie Irving after already having lost big-ticket free agent Gordon Hayward to an ankle injury in the season opener. If the Sixers end up playing the Celtics in the conference semifinals, they will be in the position of having the two best players on the court, something that counts for a lot in the NBA at this time of year.
“The expectation level has changed throughout the season,” Redick said. “Our aspirations, I think, are even higher than just getting out of the first round now, where three months ago maybe it was, ‘Hey, we’re probably going to be in the playoffs but it’d be great if we could win a series.’ So we have high aspirations.”
Those aspirations have only gotten higher over the course of this first-round series. The way they recovered from the beatdown that Miami delivered to them in the second quarter of Game 2 has served to answer one of biggest unknowns about this team heading into the postseason. That is, how would they respond to the physicality and intensity of the postseason? The Sixers, after all, are an unprecedentedly young team, the first in the three-point era to advance to the playoffs with three first- or second-year players averaging 30-plus minutes per game.
Yet throughout the series, there have been hints that this is an unprecedented team. In Game 4, they accomplished something that no team had done in over 30 years, winning a playoff game despite turning the ball over 27 times (the last team with 26 turnovers was the Jazz in 1988). That’s not necessarily the kind of achievement you want to hang your hat on, but it does speak to a certain resiliency the Sixers seem to possess.
“The fact that you can actually win a playoff game with this volume of turnovers is mind-boggling,” Brown said after the game.
Redick himself is one reason to think that the Sixers will only get better. Although the veteran has played a big role in the series with his screening and off-the-ball movement, he has connected on just eight of his 27 shots from three-point range, a .296 shooting percentage that is way below the .420 mark he posted during the regular season. Meanwhile, Ben Simmons seems to get better with every game he plays. And let’s not forget that Joel Embiid is still finding his sea legs after missing 10 games with a broken face.
It needs to start with a win on Tuesday, of course. But you get the sense that the Sixers are still nowhere close to their finish.