A Sixers Playoff Preview – for a Series They're Expected to Win!

I'll be honest -- I do not remember how to write a Philadelphia 76ers playoff preview. I've been writing for The700Level since 2009, and the Sixers made the postseason several times since then, so presumably I must've penned a couple such pieces in that timespan. But the half-decade following their last appearance has been so overwhelmed with columns I've had to write about injuries, rebuilding trades, controversial draft selections, losing streaks, injuries, infuriating press conferences, award snubs, last-second buzzer-beater Ls, and injuries, that it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that I've lost all muscle memory for how to write about the Sixers beyond Game 82. 

But of course, even if I did recall writing about those three Sixers playoff runs, I'd still be mostly unprepared for writing about this year, since there's a pretty major difference this time around: This time, Philly's actually expected to win. In every Sixers postseason appearance since A.I.'s departure, the team has gone into their first-round series as heavy underdogs, and usually for good reason, as only once (in the lockout-shortened 2011-'12 season) did they even enter the playoffs with a record above .500. 

A short recap of the four postseason appearances the Sixers have made since the Iverson trade: In '08 and '09, the Andres-led (Iguodala & Miller) Ballers jumped out to surprise 2-1 leads against the Pistons and Magic, respectively, before both favorites roared back for what ultimately amounted to easy 4-2 series victories. In 2011, they needed the biggest shot of Lou Williams' Sixers career to take one home game off the Heat in LeBron's first postseason run in Miami, and lost a hard-fought series in five games. In 2012, injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah of the top-seeded Chicago Bulls made for an unexpectedly close series against the eighth-seeded Sixers, and thanks to some shockingly clutch free throws from Andre Iguodala, Philly took the series in a 4-2 "upset" -- then inexplicably proceeded to take the 4th-seeded Boston Celtics to seven, ultimately falling in Boston in the decisive final game. Then the Bynum trade, The Process, and here we are. 

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For the first time in 15 years, when the Sixers take the floor for the first game of the postseason tomorrow, they will do so on their home court. They enter the playoffs as the three seed, a 52-30 squad that won their final 16 games of the season, an NBA record. They'll play the sixth-seeded, 44-38 Miami Heat in the first round, and should they win, their second-round matchup will either come against a Celtics squad missing their two best players (and a couple other rotation cogs) or a Bucks team who Philly beat by 35 in Game 82. With this playoff path ahead of them, not only are the Sixers favorites in their first-round series, they're expected to make it all the way to the conference finals -- if not even further. It's... well, it's an adjustment for most of us. 

How are we supposed to make sense of all of this? The short answer is we're probably not, but for several longer answers, read on. 

Can the Sixers win the championship this season?

I'd normally end with this question in a roundup like this -- I think -- but the question is so crazy and yet so necessary that it seems irresponsible to let it linger underneath all the other things we still have to discuss. So let's get this out of the way right now: 

Yes, the Sixers can win the championship this season. 

Do they have a good chance of doing so? No. Do they have a considerable chance of doing so? Not really. Do they have a better chance of doing so than they do of losing in the first round? Almost certainly not. 

But do they have a non-zero, not-totally-negligible chance of winning it all? Yes. 

That's a hard thing for even the most valiant of Process Trusters to wrap their heads around. This team went 10-72 two years ago, finished 26 games under .500 last year, and started 14-18 this year. Their two best players had a combined 31 games of NBA experience going into this season. Most of us would've accepted a first-round obliteration -- maybe even a playoff near-miss -- as an entirely acceptable next step for this young, historically injury-plagued squad. 

But the facts of this season don't lie, and neither do the odds: The Sixers go into the playoffs rated by Bovada as a +1500 bet to win it all, fifth-highest among all teams in the postseason picture. That's considerably less of a chance than even the fourth-best team, the Toronto Raptors (at +850), but it's also markedly higher than the sixth-best Oklahoma City Thunder (+2500). 

And you can see the path. Joel Embiid comes back, the Sixers crush the Heat and fight past the Celtics, then take on either the undermanned Cavs or the unproven Raptors after one has exhausted the other the round before. Then they're just a finals away -- likely against either a Warriors roster that's been injury-stricken and inconsistent all season, or a Rockets squad built around two players who've never led a finals team before -- from the championship. 

It sounds like a stretch, because it is a stretch: 15-to-1 odds means everything has to break your way for you to even have a chance. But it's not nothing. It's not even that much more than the Sixers had in their first-round series against the Bulls six years ago. And "not nothing" is the best the Sixers have had to go on in the playoffs in at least 15 years. 

Does that mean that this first round is mostly just a formality, then? 

Nope. The Heat are good, and the Sixers are far from impervious. If everything breaks right for Philly, they could be championship contenders this season, but all they need is just a couple things to go wrong for them to be highly vulnerable in the first round. Embiid and JJ Redick's health are huge variables -- throw Ben Simmons in that mix too if you want, considering how compromised he looked while suffering from flu-like symptoms the last couple games of the season -- and despite being fairly young at their core, the Heat have a two-time champion coach on their sideline and a three-time champion player as their spiritual leader. All they have to do is steal Game One from this ahead-of-schedule Sixers team to make the entire series uncomfortable for Philly. 

It's worth remembering, of course, how even this season series was. The Sixers and Heat both won two at home, and though the Heat needed an insane Dwyane Wade fourth quarter for one of their home Ws, the Sixers needed a 24-point second-half comeback for one of theirs. Embiid dominated his matchup with Miami big Hassan Whiteside over social media, but it was a draw at best on the court -- JoJo posted just 19 and 9 on 41% shooting with four turnovers per game in his three outings against Miami this season (Whiteside was 15 and 10 on 60% shooting). Simmons put up pretty good numbers in the season series -- 15/8/7 on 53% shooting -- but will have to contend with a number of well-sized, athletic, physical defenders (James Johnson, Justise Winslow, maybe even Bam Adebayo) on this Miami team for potentially six or seven games, a challenge the rookie point guard simply hasn't faced before.

The Sixers unquestionably have more elite-level talent and a higher long-term ceiling than this Miami team, and are the deserved favorites in the series. But the Heat go a legit 11 players deep, they're versatile and they execute. There won't be much room for error against them, and getting that first game from Miami could end up being absolutely crucial. 

How much will Embiid's presence matter?

I mean... a lot? The Sixers went a stunning 8-0 without Embiid to end the regular season, but that stretch comes with more asterisks than a censored Andrew Dice Clay routine: Most of the teams they played in that stretch were either tanking, injured, had nothing to play for, or some combination thereof. The Cavs win was impressive, of course, but they were able to blitz an unprepared Cleveland team for a 30-point lead in the first half and still came a missed LeBron free throw from potentially losing the whole thing. For this team to make anywhere near the postseason run fans are hoping for, they will need a healthy and impactful Embiid sooner than later.  

Could they get away without him in the Heat series, though? Well, they are 1-0 against Miami without JoJo this season, pulling off that jaw-dropping home comeback while Embiid was sidelined with a sore right ankle. And given that Miami's attack is largely perimeter-oriented, based around wing versatility and interchangability, and that The Process has gotten too easily sucked into one-on-one battles of will against Miami's bigs in which he's largely come up short this season, there may even be some benefits to Embiid being out. I'd still much rather have him than not, but I don't think not having Embiid would be a kiss of death for the Sixers in this series; even without him, they might still be slight favorites. 

In any event, we'll get to see how badly Embiid is missed in Game One, as JoJo has officially been ruled out for at least the first game of the series, with no immediate timetable for his return. It's a tough break for Philly and for Joel in particular, who has worked for this moment as long and as hard as anyone. But at least the eight-game win streak has given the team the confidence to know they're far from lost without their star big, and having Embiid as a variable who could in theory be reintroduced at any point will keep the Heat and their game-planning on edge for the whole series. 

Who's the most important non-star player for the Sixers in this series?

I've said this for most of the season -- particularly the final month -- and I still believe it to be true: If Robert Covington is making threes, this team is virtually unbeatable. Redick, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova will go through hot and cold stretches but can mostly be counted on; Dario Saric may struggle a little from range as he tries to reclaim the groove he lost with recent elbow ailments and time lost, but will find ways to score around the basket regardless; hopefully Embiid is only called on from behind the arc when absolutely needed. 

But Covington is the swing guy for these Sixers. When he's on his game, reliably hitting just about every three he gets to confidently step into, that's when this offense really becomes unstoppable. Covington's defense makes him integral to the Sixers' success regardless -- and he'll certainly get his chances to be invaluable at the end in this series, against havoc-wreaking guards like Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade -- but it's not by chance that Covington's rediscovery of his stroke in the season's final month coincided with the team going on their 16-game winning streak. (Cov shot 39% from three over the streak, after shooting just 31% in the 16 games before that.) With RoCo hitting, the Sixers officially become Too Good. 

Will he be able to in this series, though? Well, the numbers are not particularly encouraging: In four games against Miami, Covington shot just 21% from the field, with more total fouls (12) than made field goals (nine). And despite Covington's strong end to the season, he did cool off some in his last few games, hitting just 2-9 from deep combined against Atlanta and Milwaukee. We don't need nightly 20-point explosions from Covington in this series, but we do need him to be able to reliably chip in two or three triples a game -- especially with Embiid out -- so hopefully these couple days off are doing Cov and his regularly ailing back good, and he comes into Game One ready to fire away. 

What will be the biggest battle of the series?

Aside from Whiteside vs. Embiid -- which hopefully will be more than a Twitter-only showdown -- pace seems like the biggest stylistic discrepancy of these two teams. The Sixers ranked fourth in pace for the season, and their ability to up the tempo in transition, as directed by Ben Simmons and as enacted by our formidable array of shooters, is perhaps the biggest reason the Sixers haven't lost since before the XXXTentacion album came out. The Heat, on the other hand, ranked just 27th of 30 NBA teams in pace for the season, preferring a grind-it-out style in which they execute half-court possession by half-court possession, and always stay in front of the opposing offense. 

Getting out and running will be crucial to the Sixers in this series. The Heat's defense is nearly as elite as the Sixers, ranking seventh in defensive rating for the season, and like the Sixers, they have the personnel to switch and cover in the half-court without getting badly burned. Every time that the Sixers can get to the rim before Whiteside and Adebayo get in position, every time that they can find a shooter behind the arc while their wing defenders are still in the process of switching ends and matching up, will be an enormous advantage for Philly. These games will be low-scoring by 2018 NBA standards, and likely very close -- neither team scored more than 108 or less than 99 in any game in the season series -- and the Sixers will need to be able to impose their pace on the Heat to get the slight advantages around the margins needed to emerge victorious.

But really... the Sixers are going to win, right?

Probably. If the Sixers avoid getting shook early and Embiid comes back at full strength before too long, they are the more talented team -- even the eight-game advantage they have over the Heat in terms of record probably isn't reflective of how wide that margin is, given how improved the team has been in the season's second half. They've passed enough big-time tests this regular season to demonstrate that they're not going to crumple at the first sign of adversity. The best players usually win in the playoffs, and Philly has two top 15 players -- two more than Miami -- and a near-ideal cast of supporting veterans around them. The Sixers are in position to win this series. 

But there is something to be said for stability in the playoffs as well, and as much as the Heat might be at a talent disadvantage, they know who they are better than nearly any team in the East. The Sixers are, relatively speaking, still adjusting on the fly -- to the absence of Embiid, to the evolution of Simmons and Saric, to the late-season thickening of their bench, and particularly to the last-minute addition of Markelle Fultz. All the Heat have to do is catch the Sixers at an in-between moment in a couple of games, get Brett Brown second-guessing himself about a couple decisions, and they could turn this series on Philly pretty quickly. 

This is pro sports, and even in the Eastern Conference, there are no easy outs: Miami's professionalism and strength of identity make them a tough out, but so would the Bucks' length (and Giannis Antetokounmpo's star power) if we were playing Milwaukee, or the Wizards' playoff experience and continuity if we were playing Washington. The best you can really hope for is to say that if all possible outcomes for the series average out somewhere in the middle, your team has better chances of winning than not. And for the first time in at least a decade and a half, you can now say that about the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Prediction: Sixers in six 

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