This may be hard to believe, but the Sixers have just 15 regular season games left.
After Sunday's 106-89 win over the Pacers (see observations), the Sixers are now in the driver's seat for the Eastern Conference's third seed.
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They went just 4-4 while missing Joel Embiid for eight games since the All-Star break. They had two poor efforts in Chicago and Houston.
But with the chance to win the season series against Indiana, they knew that was a game they needed.
"This was a must-win for us," Tobias Harris said. "I mean, regardless of the standings and all that other good stuff, it was a must-win because of the last two games that we've had. We had two games that we kind of didn't bring the right energy to the games, or close out the games, especially in Chicago. So coming back on our home floor and having our fans cheer us on and get the win was big for us."
The biggest difference between those games against the Bulls and Rockets and the win over the Pacers was clearly the presence of Embiid.
He was rusty at the start, but the All-Star center scored 18 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter (see story). He managed to get the Pacers' two best big men in foul trouble and hit 11 of 15 from the line.
What didn't show up in the box score was the impact he made on defense. He altered shots and his presence seemed to have a positive effect on the team's help defense and overall communication.
He was questionable coming in, but knew what was at stake Sunday.
"Seeing the Houston game, the past couple games, you know we're fighting for the third seed over here," Embiid said. "We're fighting for home-court advantage. I just felt like this game was also really important and if it was just for me to come back to this game and miss a couple, I would've been fine with it, but I just felt like I had to play this game just to make sure that we were in good position."
Embiid's performance was a sight for sore eyes for Brett Brown. The Sixers' head coach has been the source of criticism from the fan base for the Sixers' poor performance late in games and against elite teams.
With the pair of moves Elton Brand made to acquire Harris and Jimmy Butler, it's very clear the Sixers are trying to win now. That puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Brown, who embraces the expectations and has his players ready.
"I can feel that they sense that it's getting to be go time," Brown said. "For the past [few] games, every time we come in that locker room, I have a number on the board and tonight on the video screen, they looked up and it said 16. The next game, it's going to say 15, and it's going to walk down. We're on the clock.
"I think that the sense of urgency and awareness of what we are getting close to, having to perform at the level that we have to perform at is real for these players. I can feel that there's an excitement having Joel back and Boban [Marjanovic] is not that far away, and it's getting close to [the playoffs] and I can feel it more than I can see it. I thought our guys responded well tonight as a starting point."
If Sunday was the "starting point," it is encouraging. Hopefully they won't see the finish line until mid-June.
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