Ah, what a far-off fantasy basic subpar-ness was just a year ago. Back when every month brought with it new opportunities for historic ineptitude, it seemed too much to dream that someday -- perhaps even someday soon -- the Philadelphia 76ers could manage to be the kind of lousy that just blends in with the NBA's other lousy teams, the kind that, by math, the league should have at least ten of at any given point in time. But after last night's win at home against Miami -- their second in a row, and third (fine, fourth, we'll even give 'em the one we got without JoJo) overall, with the calendar not yet even at December's doorstep -- I think it's finally safe to say it: the Sixers are finally just Normal Bad.
As you may recall, Philly sports fans got a much-needed reminder of the joys of Normal Bad this spring and summer with our Philadelphia Phillies, who after years of struggling in vain to maintain basic respectability had found themselves plunged into the ranks of the depressingly disappointing and the purposelessly pitiful. But after a quick year of teardown, and a badly needed influx of youth and vitality, the Fightins ascended escaped the gutter and upgraded to the cellar -- still at the bottom, and still kinda dark, but indoors, civilized, and not nearly so inherently humiliating. They were Normal Bad, ending the year 71-91 with the league's worst run differential, but not even the division's worst record, and the staircase to ground level in clear sight. It could've been -- in fact, had been -- a lot worse.
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Now, the Sixers join their ranks. They didn't play out of their minds last night, and the Heat didn't completely fumble the crystal egg -- it was just a matchup between two Normal Bad squads that one won because they got a couple calls they needed while the other missed some shots they probably should've made. Robert Covington finally connected on a three at the most crucial point in the game, Goran Dragic threw up an airball from the corner, and before you knew it, the Sixers had this one in the bag. That's a thing that happens now: the Sixers win games that they could've theoretically lost. Wild.
Of course, it always helps to have Joel Embiid. Even though he wasn't even the most dominant center on the night -- Hassan Whiteside had 32 and 13 for Miami, and even that probably undersells what a terror he was down low -- The Process still stamped his trustworthiness all over this one, with 22 points on 7-13 shooting in 23 minutes, including a 5-6 fourth quarter from the free-throw line that all but iced the game for Philly. (Joel's 29.8 points per 36 minutes ranks 4th in the entire NBA, behind only Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and DeMar DeRozan.) He was also a predictable game-changer on defense, and helped abate Whiteside's bullying of the Sixers by getting him in foul trouble. He had three blocks. He dribbled into another three. He's the greatest.
Again, though, a team effort in this one, down to our backup C Jahlil Okafor, who was all but helpless against Dragic and Whiteside in the pick and roll, but at least helped make up for it on the offensive end, with 15 points on 7-13 shooting. I don't love Ersan Ilyasova playing 31 minutes to Dario Saric's 17, but Ilyasova earned his PT in this one with a 11-point, ten-board double-double, and though Hot Sauce finally cooled to mild in this one (just 2-6 from the field, snapping his streak of double-digit scoring outings at six), he did have a key four-point play and a couple nice rebounds.
Special shouts, though, to my once-and-possibly-future least-favorite Sixer, Gerald Henderson. Ol' Hendu has been making me look right foolish for my hatorade-drinking over his last few outings, and in this one he scored a non-Embiid-high 19 points on just eight shots, including 3-3 from beyond the arc. He's now shooting 50% for the season, and 42% from deep, while also serving as our second-best wing defender -- that Avery Bradley kind of production we've so long been looking for on the perimeter. I'm not optimistic he can keep it up, and I dread the Clankfest '16 we'll all have VIP access to that must be coming for regression-to-the-mean balance, but as with Ilyasova, this is already better than I ever expected to get from Sir Gerald.
So Philly is now just a win away from having a .500 record at home -- something, not counting 0-0, that they haven't had since 2013. Unfortunately they have to play the Memphis Grizzlies next, who are on a much more legitimate heater at the moment: five wins a row, including road victories over the Jazz, Clippers and Hornets. All the Sixers have done have protected home court against the league's least competent, beating the teams they should beat. But phrasing it like that, of course, buries the most critical point of all: This season, even without Ben Simmons, Nerlens Noel and (until last night's super-rusty comeback) Jerryd Bayless, there are still teams that the Philadelphia 76ers should beat. For this team, Normal Bad probably feels about as good as winning 73 games did for the Warriors.