Things are about to be telling for the 76ers.
They punched their tickets to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second consecutive season with a convincing 122-100 win over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 5 of their conference quarterfinals Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center.
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All-Star cener Joel Embiid finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds in just 20 minutes, 22 seconds of action. Point guard Ben Simmons was the only Sixers starter to see fourth-quarter action in the lopsided game.
Things got testy with 1 minute, 50 seconds remaining. Jonah Bolden and Rodions Kurucs got tangled up. The Nets forward shoved Bolden before separating and running down court. Bolden then went after Kurucs. Meanwhile, Sixers reserve Greg Monroe and Nets post player Dzanan Musa also got into it on the court. All four players were ejected.
Winning an opening-round playoff series 4-1 is a solid accomplishment. But that’s not how this Sixers season will be defined. The expectation of many is for the team to reach at least the Eastern Conference Finals.
With several in-season roster upgrades, duplicating last season’s conference semifinals loss to the Boston Celtics would be unacceptable.
“We feel pretty good about what we can do,” Embiid said. “There is definitely a difference from last year. I feel like this team is better than last year’s team.
“Last year, we had a great momentum going into the playoffs, and Boston just smacked us.”
Last season, the Sixers won the final 16 regular-season games and closed out their opening-round series against the Miami Heat in five games. Embiid felt they were overconfident heading into the Celtics series.
“But this year, it’s just about respecting everything about the game of basketball and just putting the work in,” Embiid said.
But while there was some excitement with advancing, the Sixers realize they’ll be judged by the upcoming series against the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors closed out their opening-round series against the Orlando Magic with a 115-96 Game 5 victory Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
The Sixers-Raptors series most likely will start on Saturday in Toronto.
The second-seeded Raptors will have home-court advantage in what won’t be an easy series for the third-seeded Sixers.
The Sixers have lost 13 straight games in Toronto since a 93-83 win there on Nov. 10, 2012. The Raptors have also won 21 of 24 series meetings dating back to the start of the 2013-14 season. That includes winning three of this season’s four regular-season meetings. Their lone victory was a 126-101 win on Dec. 22 when Toronto was without two-time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka and former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas.
But the Sixers are a different team since then thanks to several roster-altering trades. Half of their normal eight-man playoff rotation was acquired on Feb. 7 before the trade deadline.
Tobias Harris, the headliner of that day’s acquisitions, finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists on Tuesday. Reserves James Ennis III (11 points) and Boban Marjanovic (7 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists) - two other trade-deadline additions - also had solid games.
However, reserve power forward Mike Scott (2 points), the fourth newcomer in the regular rotation, left in the second quarter with what the team called “right heel contusion” and did not return. He will be re-evaluated Wednesday morning.
“We all understand what the math says with our success in Toronto,” coach Brett Brown said. "It’s not flattering. But it’s also not directed to the team that we have. So you can credit or discredit it. I’m discrediting it.
“I think that we have a new group. We have a new opportunity.”
Brown added Sixers are excited to go up to Canada and fix their lack of success against the Raptors. However, he’s aware that it’s going to be an “incredibly tough” series. He thinks Toronto is as good as any team in the NBA.
“We will be tested immediately when we get up into Toronto,” Brown said.
They weren’t tested on Tuesday.
The Sixers came out like a team determined to close out the series. Meanwhile, the Nets looked like the moment was too big for them.
They missed their first eight shot attempts and had four early turnovers. Taking advantage, the Sixers jumped out to an early 14-0 advantage while making 6 of their first 12 shots. The Nets didn’t make their first shot until Jarrett Allen’s basket with 5 minutes, 52 seconds into the game. But the Sixers responded with a 9-0 run to take a 23-2 lead. The Sixers went on to lead 32-15 after one quarter. Brooklyn made just 6 of 23 shots (26.1 percent) in the quarter.
The Sixers built a 60-31 halftime lead.
“I think they can compete for a championship, quite honestly,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said.
Embiid agreed with him.
“That’s what we think," he said. “We think we can win it all. Obviously, it’s going to take a lot. We got some great teams in the league. We are about to play one of them.”
He pointed out the Sixers would have to face the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics if they advanced in conference finals. He added that West Conference is “pretty tough.”