They were lined up like bowling pins, crowded together in the corner of the court, towels and warm ups hanging from their upper bodies. Ben Simmons had his hands rolled up in his shirt like a muffler. Robert Covington was standing there with him, as was JJ Redick, and Dario Saric. Joel Embiid would join them shortly, matching a peach blazer with a pair of gold high tops the way few of us can. On the scoreboard was a 30-point lead and on the court were five of their backups and all around them was a crowd that had little to do but wait for the rest of the playoff field to sort itself out.
This was the first quarter.
Within a couple of hours, everything would change. The Bucks were a memory, as was the 130-95 thumping the Sixers had just delivered them. The locker room was a unique combination of exhale and inhale, a subtle breeze between fronts. Things change fast this time of year. One moment, you have 52 wins. The next, you have none.
“There’s no room for mistakes,” said Amir Johnson, a veteran of 42 playoff games. “You’ve got to pay attention to detail.”
There are a lot of questions to ponder between now and the time the Heat arrive in town for the start of Game 1. What will the rotation look like? How big of a workload will Ben Simmons carry? Will Joel Embiid play?
But beyond that granular level, the question that hovers is a fascinating one. The Sixers won 52 games during the regular season, the last 16 of them in a row. But what, exactly, will they look like within the unique confines of a best-of-seven series?
Veterans like Johnson will tell you that everything from here on out bears little resemblance to what came before. The rules of basketball do not change once the postseason arrives, but the game that they govern certainly does. Two games here, and then two games there, and then one and one and one. Compared to the regular season, it is a vacuum, stripped of all the extraneous variables that alter the probabilities of each 1/82nd.
Take the Bucks, for example. Before Wednesday night, the one time they’d visited the Wells Fargo Center they’d done so without MVP-candidate forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. The two other times the two teams had faced off were both Bucks wins. But they were also both on the road. Then, on Wednesday, in the final game of the season, Milwaukee was playing with the knowledge that a win would only increase their chances of facing James’ Cavaliers in the first round. The lineup they fielded said it wasn’t a tank, but the effort told a different tale.
Once this weekend arrives, all of those mitigating factors will fade into the springtime mist.
“When you play a seven-game series against one team, you kind of learn a lot of things about each other,” Ersan Illyasova said. “Sometimes, things that worked during the season, they’re not going to work. Offensively, defensively, you have to bring something different to the table.”
When they’d arrived earlier that afternoon, they had four potential playoff opponents and 72 hours before the start of the first round. As a whole, they are young. But represented amongst them is a rodeo or two. First and foremost: the coach, who spent 12 years in San Antonio, a town that is vaguely familiar with this whole playoff thing. A couple of hours before game time, Brett Brown was as calm as a man unsure of his future can be. He wore a black sweatsuit and talked in a deliberate tone about the month-plus of advance work that he and his assistants had put in.
Somewhere down a hallway behind him, there were four separate gamelans awaiting their fate. The following morning, he and his staff would gather together and dive into the one that still mattered. The players would arrive later that day for a team dinner and a preview of what the next day’s practice would bring.
“We’ll come in the next morning and we’ll have bigs, littles and points guards separate and go to their parts with different coaches and lay out the personnel part of it all, go practice, get ’em out of there, and deal with whatever time the NBA tells us we’re gonna play on Saturday,” Brown said.
In that sense, the two-and-a-half hours of action on Wednesday had the feel of the breeze before the start of a storm. At one point in the first half, the Sixers were up 41, a number all the more impressive when you consider that Simmons, Redick and Embiid had combined for a total of zero points. The rest of the half would play out much as the start of it had, Markelle Fultz soaring through the air, and T.J. McConnell draining threes, and Marco Belinelli doing God knows what.
What the Sixers know now is that their first obstacle will be a Heat team that played them even in their regular season series. But it is a different season now. And there will be nothing regular about it.