The Sixers believe this to be their year. With their lineup at its strongest since they drafted Joel Embiid third overall in 2014 and LeBron James no longer looming large over the East, they figure they have ample reason to cast moist eyes on the Larry O’Brien Trophy. “It’s been a long six years for all of us, but at the end of all this, we’ve assembled an enormous amount of talent, and we’re really excited to be on the eve of the playoffs with a team that we think can make a deep playoff run,” ESPN quoted franchise owner Josh Harris as saying right before tipoff of their homestand against the Nets yesterday.
Harris is right, of course. The Sixers do have the tools to contend for the hardware. As history has proven time and again, however, there’s a chasm between potential and performance under pressure, and there is need to bridge it with the proper blend of skill, resolve, and no small measure of good fortune. And, if the outcome of their match yesterday is any indication, they have a long way to go before claiming the ideal mix. The Nets, supposed patsies unsure of a playoff seat until the final week of an up-and-down regular season, wound up leading all but the first 10 minutes of the contest and winning with exceptional ease.
To be fair, the Sixers competed with a hobbled Embiid in tow. Tendinitis in the left knee limited their top dog to 24 minutes of exposure and a so-so stat line of 22 (on five-of-15 shooting from the field), 15, and four. Meanwhile, Nets counterpart Ed Davis was a certified success off the bench, keeping him in check and, at the same time, contributing 12 (on five-of-seven shooting, 16, and two in 25 minutes of play. That said, they won’t be getting a better version of the two-time All-Star anytime soon; the compact schedule from Game Two onwards will provide him with fewer periods of recovery than he had on a load-management protocol heading into the playoffs.
To mitigate the effects of Embiid’s inherently poor conditioning and longtime problems with his knee, Sixers head coach Brett Brown has employed substitution patterns that enable him to burn rubber in five-minute clusters before taking short rests on the bench. Additionally, he has, on occasion, planted himself beyond the three-point line, effectively taking in-game breathers as a secondary option. The relative rigidity of the structure has helped, but not without attendant concerns; most tellingly, spacing, which has been serviceable at best, suffers.
True, the better team tends to prevail in a best-of-seven affair, and the Sixers, for all their frailties, remain superior to the Nets. Still, there are no ifs and buts: Game Two has become a must-win outing for them. Should they lose anew, they may well find themselves losing the confidence required for them to meet the burden of great expectations. As Harris indicated, The Process was six years in the making, and fans who stayed loyal throughout believe the time has come for them to reap the dividends of their patience.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.