Do they look? Of course they look. Anybody who says he doesn’t is probably saying less than the truth.
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Absolutely,” he said.
After an easy, breezy 119-105 win on Wednesday night, this is what they see: 12 games left, a 40-30 record, and five teams separated by 3.5 games for the third through seventh seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They are in fourth place now, but just 1.5 games out of third, either of which would come with home-court advantage in the first round. Nine of their 12 remaining games are against teams with losing records, six of whose win totals sit in the 20s.
There is opportunity here, and they know it.
“It’s crazy just to see in that third through seven slots, it’s one or two games that dictate where teams fall,” Covington said. “We have to put ourselves in the best position possible, and if we keep doing what we’re doing, and if things keep going the way we are going, there’s a great possibility we can end up with home court advantage.”
Nights like Wednesday can only help matters.The NBA isn’t a league where you can take many games for granted, but the Sixers entered Wednesday with a habit of making the early going of games look a little more difficult than the matchups suggested. Though it hadn’t hurt them from a bottom-line perspective, it had limited Brett Brown’s ability to act on his desire to get his core some time off their feet with the postseason looming.
So, yeah, this one was a good one, a realization you should have come to when you looked up with nine minutes remaining and saw James Young running down the court in transition. After a brief stretch of second quarter slop, the Sixers commenced with making the Grizzlies look every bit of their 19-51. Joel Embiid hit an elbow jumper and Ben Simmons went coast-to-coast for an And 1 and Matt Cord announced that the organization was giving away two free hot dogs to each of the 10,000 fans who’d ignored the advice of their local municipality and drove through a Nor’easter to watch basketball. Hot dogs! Yes, it was a party.
They’d entered the locker room trailing in each of their previous four games, the last three of them against teams that were 10+ games under .500. But on this particular night they scored five points on the final possession of the second quarter (two free throws off a Flagrant 1 followed by a J.J. Redick three-pointer). By the end of the third quarter, a 14-point lead had turned into 30, their third-largest margin of the season at that juncture, and their largest since Feb. 9, when they held 32 points against the Hornets heading into the fourth.
And, with that, it was time to pause for a little bit of reflection, about where this Sixers team had been just one year earlier and where it would soon be going.
The stakes are higher than you might think. Prior to Wednesday’s game, the Sixers would have been staring at a first-round match-up with the Cavaliers. Say what you will about the dysfunction in Cleveland this season — head coach Tyronn Lue’s health-related leave of absence the latest plot point — LeBron James has never lost a first round playoff series in his career and has been to the NBA Finals in each of the last seven seasons. Talk to the Raptors. A Cavs loss in that marquee matchup would have helped the Sixers last night. But it wasn’t to be. And if you think it will be in the playoffs, you haven’t been paying attention for the last decade-and-a-half.
By the end of Wednesday’s action, the field had shifted, the Sixers sliding ahead of the Pacers into fourth place after Indiana’s loss to the Hornets.
Meanwhile, the Heat remain just two games back of the Sixers in seventh place for an all-but-certain playoff opener in Boston. So while they might be three wins away from clinching a playoff berth — they entered Wednesday with an eight-game lead over the ninth-place Pistons with 13 games left to play — the Sixers have plenty to gain by taking care of business over these next three weeks.
Throughout the last month, Brown’s staff has diverted some of its attention toward scouting the playoff field. At the start of the week, the odds said the Sixers were most likely to finish with the fourth seed and a first round matchup against the Pacers. That would be good news in the sense that they would hold home court advantage for the first round, but bad news in the sense that they’ve lost two straight to the Pacers since a Nov. 3 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
Really, though, there is no ideal scenario. The Sixers are 9-16 against the seven teams likely to join them in the Eastern Conference playoff field, having lost three of our to Toronto and Boston and two of three to Milwaukee, Indiana, and Cleveland, while splitting their four-game season series with Miami and Washington. They need every bit of advantage that is available to them. Home court in Games 1 and 2 is more than a bit of one.
“It’s huge,” Simmons said. “That’s what we’re playing for. We want to get home court advantage.”
There is not a lot of margin for error. On Wednesday, they didn’t need any. On Thursday, in Orlando, they’re back at it again.