It might have been Doug Pederson talking about his Super Bowl champion Eagles. It could have been Jay Wright talking about how playing “Villanova basketball” won him two NCAA titles in the last three years. It might even have been Dave Hakstol, whose rebuilding Flyers overachieved.
“There’s a toughness. Resilience. Spirit. Choose whatever you want. They compete for each other.”
It might have been any of them, but was none of those coaches.
Sixers coach Brett Brown said those words about two hours before his Processed ball club took its next step toward the top of the league Tuesday night.
The Sixers tanked for three seasons. They won just 28 games last season. This season, behind rookie Ben Simmons and all-star center Joel Embiid, they won 52 games, earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and, Tuesday night, deftly eliminated the Miami Heat, 104-91, in the fifth game of the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The win unfolded in front of a gaggle of regional luminaries; rappers and politicians and athletes and billionaires. Philadelphia hasn’t seen hardcourt excitement like this since Iverson & Co. carried it all the way the NBA Finals against Kobe and the Lakers 17 years ago. That team, with Dikembe Mutombo, Aaron McKie and Eric Snow, was as tough and as resilient a team as you’ll ever see.
This team is a lot like that one, only this team has more talent. A lot more talent. The sort of talent that can be real good for a long time.
“They grew up,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade. “And they learned some things from us.
“This is the future of the NBA.”
The future is now in Philadelphia.
“The team’s very close,” Brown said afterward. “They can absorb mistakes. They’re in this together”
It’s been that sort of year in Philadelphia sports; a year of cooperation and selflessness and the single-minded purpose of improving every day.
The Eagles rallied as illogical underdogs. The Phillies’ “#BeBold” motto has wrought early success. Villanova’s shaky start turned into the strongest of finishes. The rebuilding Flyers made an unlikely run to the playoffs. And now, look at the 76ers’ playoff logo — a segmented snake draped around a bicentennial bell underscored by “#PhilaUnite.” The commonality: All of the teams afforded themselves space to achieve; a chance for their sum to be greater than their parts.
Each created an atmosphere without of blame or judgment. This is, in Philadelphia, a time of nurturing and teaching and growth.
The winning? Coincidental.
As for the Sixers: It’s not remarkable that a good team thrives through synergy. It’s remarkable that this Sixers team has thrived this much this quickly.
Tuesday night was Joel Embiid’s 97th NBA game, and his third playoff game. It was Ben Simmons’ 86th, and fifth. It was Dario Saric’s 163rd, but only his 114th start, and his fifth playoff game.
Marco Belinelli joined the teams 32 games ago; Ersan Ilyasova, 28.
Somehow, though, they’re thick as thieves.
“They didn’t skip any steps,” said Heat coach Eric Spoelstra, who said the Sixers’ injury woes slowed the Process. “When guys got healthy, they fit into a well-drilled system. And added very rock-solid pieces to what they already had.”
The Sixers last night welcomed Villanova’s team, welcomed Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and even Meek Mill, the Eagles’ official chantuer. Mill rang the pregame bell, then sat next to Philly comedian Kevin Hart and Michael Rubin, a Sixers co-owner and one of Mill’s billionaire advocates. That’s right, the Sixers even managed to #FreeMeekMill from prison … at least, for the time being. (He’s getting a new trial. Something about an allegedly dirty cop.) It was lit.
“You feel it,” Brown said.
In front of them, and about 21,000 others, the Sixers experienced their moment of ascension; the moment they pulled away in a closeout playoff game for the first time in The Process era. It came early in the third quarter, and was the culmination of what already had been a brutal style of play.
Josh Richardson had inadvertently undercut Ben Simmons. Kelly Olynyk had ripped off the face mask that protects Embiid’s healing orbital fractures.
Then, astonishingly, in the open court, after a whistle blew, Heat guard Goran Dragic cuffed Simmons upside the head after Simmons stole the ball from him, and after Simmons already had been fouled by him. It happened with 9 minutes, 32 seconds to play in the third period. It was dirty, and desperate, and entirely predictable.
“You have to expect that it’s going to be a physical game,” said Brown, referencing his 12 playoff runs as a Spurs assistant. “You can’t beg for calls. You can’t overreact. You have to play the game.”
Simmons was outraged, as he should have been. So was Embiid. Dragic should have been ejected. He is the Heat’s best player, so the officials declined.
Notably, it was not Simmons or Embiid who exacted revenge; not in the manner you might imagine in an NBA game. They led, 50-48, when Simmons got hit.
About three minutes later they led by 10. Four different Sixers had scored. Simmons wasn’t one of them.
As Brown predicted: He just played the game.
“We withstood the physicality of the Miami Heat team,” Brown said.
He was proud.