After 15 games in a row, I probably should've learned my lesson. But I really though the streak was ending last night: The Sixers looked gassed against the Hawks in Atlanta on Tuesday, Ben Simmons had the flu, Dario Saric probably hadn't eaten solid food in 24 hours, both Joel Embiid and J.J. Redick were out, and the Sixers were gonna have to beat a Bucks team at risk of losing their first-round draft pick with a loss -- all on the second night of a back-to-back, after playing (and winning) 15 games in four weeks. Like... it should've at least been a challenge, right?
Not so much. The game lasted maybe ten minutes before being Sharpie-able -- by the time the Sixers went up 40-12 with two minutes to go in the first, this thing was already about as over as third-wave ska. Maybe the Bucks didn't care about keeping their first-rounder as much as they wanted to duck Cleveland and Philly in the first round, or maybe they just got blitzed early and didn't have the resolve to fight back in Game 82. Either way, no LeBron on the Bucks sideline meant no real risk of a Milwaukee comeback, and Philly ended up winning this one 130-95.
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That's 52-30 for your Philadelphia 76ers, then, and an NBA record 16-game winning streak to close out the regular season. I remember having so many conversations in January and February -- including a bunch of one-sided ones on this blog -- about how the Sixers just needed to get through February, and the rest of their schedule would be cream cheese. Still, none of us could've anticipated it'd be this level of cream cheese -- that heavenly walnut raisin -- where the Sixers would go an entire month without a single dropped game, a single emotional let-up, a single schedule loss, a single s**t-happens no-show. Hell, only five of the wins were by single digits. Basketball isn't supposed to be this easy, for anyone, ever.
Oh yeah, and for the ninth time in the last 18 games, our point guard had a triple-double. That's pretty remarkable in itself, but what made it particularly special last night was that it wasn't from Ben Simmons, who actually struggled to one of his worst stat lines of the season -- just four points on 1-6 shooting, with six boards, seven dimes and four turnovers. Rather, it was Markelle Fultz who provided the spectacular for the Sixers, putting up a resounding 13-10-10 in 25 minutes off the bench for Philly, becoming the youngest player ever to post a triple-double (and getting mobbed by his teammates for the achievement). You couldn't have asked for a more feel-good capper to the Sixers' season than our No. 1 overall pick, who so many had written off as a bust before he'd even played five games as a pro, casually making NBA history in his final game of the regular season.
What more can you say about this Philadelphia 76ers season, really? After four years of historic losing, how do you begin come to grips with following a team whose 52-30 record probably undersells how good they've been? What kind of sense is there to be made of a team that goes from "they *could* make the playoffs" to "they *could* win the NBA championship" in the space of three months? How do you try to explain to your kids that the 19-year-old who just posted a triple-double in a season-closing must-win game isn't even close to the best rookie point guard on your team? In what world is this Sixers team allowed to be as good as they've been the last eight games without their most important player? You have to laugh, it's all so cosmically silly.
So, the three seed. The Sixers got that. Thanks to the putrid final-day showings from the Bucks and the eighth-seeded Wizards, they'll host the sixth-seeded Miami Heat in the first round, with the winner of Celtics-Bucks awaiting in the conference semis should the Sixers advance. And at the risk of getting ahead of myself, I'll ask The700Level readers to do me the personal favor of not making the mistake of underestimating the Heat, who are extremely tough and who've basically played the Sixers even all season. The Sixers may be favorites in this series, but they are not even close to a sure thing.
But who cares about the postseason, really? I don't want to talk about that yet. This regular season was so much fun, and such a triumph -- at least by Joel-Embiid-didn't-play-65-games standards -- that the playoffs almost seem like an afterthought to me right now. These 82 games provided all the ammo Sixers fans will ever night to forever combat the Enemies of the Process, and getting to watch Joel and Ben and Dario and Markelle has been validation for every decision the Sixers ever made that brought us here. (Except for the Nerlens Noel trade, of course, which I'll still be megaphoning about in protest as we parade down Broad Street for the third straight June.) It's been six months of Hoagiefest at the Wells Fargo Center, and I've loved it more than I knew was possible.
Before we get into the playoff matchups and all that, I hope you'll all take a day to reflect on just how special this has all been. We have an irritating tendency in American pro sports to let playoff success or lack thereof color everything that came before it, as if we don't spend the great majority of our basketball-fan lives watching the regular season. There's obviously big things still to come for these Sixers, both in the short term and long term, but please don't let anticipation of those overshadow how big these last 82 games have been, too. Fanbases go entire generations without a season like this. The Sixers went 17 years without a season like this. It's a short life. Trust the Process.