I gotta admit, I thought the Sixers might slip up last night.
Joel Embiid sidelined? JJ Redick a late scratch? Dario Saric rusty? The second night of a back-to-back?
The concerns felt legit as Brett Brown’s team readied itself for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the playoff-bound Milwaukee Bucks at the Wells Fargo Center. It would be a damn shame for the Sixers to cough up the #3 seed by losing for the first time in 16 games.
That was not the case at all. Not even close.
The Sixers came out flying, operating like a well-oiled machine and showing the kind of defensive urgency that’s been their hallmark from day one. Brown’s squad just swarmed, suffocated, and clamped Milwaukee down en route to a 40-12 start, a lead that ballooned to 41 points in the second quarter. They went on to win by 35.
It’s 16 straight to finish the regular season, which extends the franchise’s single-season winning streak record. Per Elias Sports Bureau, the Sixers are the first team to enter the postseason with a 16-game winning streak, topping a 15-game run from the Rochester Royals in 1949-50. I remember that Royals team like it was yesterday.
The Sixers finish with 52 wins this season, becoming only the third Philly team since the Dr. J and Moses Malone era to crest 50. The other squads to do it were Charles Barkley’s 1989-90 team and Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 team. That’s wonderful company for a group featuring a rookie point guard, a second year big man, and a guy from Croatia who was supposedly never coming over here.
Going back to 2015’s 10-win season, the Sixers have improved their record by a whopping 42 games in just three years. That ties Boston for the largest turnaround in a three-year span in NBA history, when the Celtics also experienced the same U-turn in 2007-2008.
It’s just one hell of a storyline for a team that, not long ago, was viewed as tanking trash by a large portion of Philadelphia sports fans and the greater NBA community. They were garbage, a joke, the dregs of the association and an embarrassment to anyone with even a shred of integrity or competitiveness in their blood.
That was then.
Now they’re the hottest team in basketball, a rising squad with a ceiling that is higher than Dave Chappelle and Jim Breuer in Half Baked. The Sixers’ ceiling is so high that I think you would be able to look down and see the sky. And I think the rapid growth validates Sam Hinkie’s claim that progress doesn’t necessarily have to be linear.
Two years after ten wins, we’re talking about Sixers/Heat in the playoffs, a matchup I’ll break down a little later today.
For now, some notes on last night:
The biggest takeaway of the night
For me, it was Dario’s performance.
He had the elbow cellulitis that kept him out of three games, he came back rusty, then chipped the tooth. So I thought it was going to be uber-important for him to come out last night and knock down some shots and regain his form as the Sixers transitioned into the postseason.
Saric started 3-4 from the field and finished 10-19 and 3-7 from deep, pouring in 24 points and adding 5 rebounds and an assist. He looked like himself in 28 minutes, the most he’s played since the New York game when he initially cut open his arm.
Even outside of the three-pointers he knocked down, he got some tough stuff to fall around the rim, and this one jumped out at me as something he doesn’t usually try:
— NBA (@NBA) April 12, 2018
Transition catch and drive? Fake under the rim? That’s assertive Dario there.
In addition to the offensive stuff, Brett Brown spoke pregame about the importance of getting him on the floor to help straighten out the defensive assignments:
“I think that (form is important), especially when you look at the design of the Bucks. They have a bunch of Darios, you know? From (Khris) Middleton to Giannis and Jabari (Parker), like those species, how we’re going to guard those really good athletes, is very bothersome. So I feel like with Dario’s size and Ersan’s size and Ben’s size and Covington’s size, you feel a little more at peace with how you’re going to guard their size, their pole vault size. Dario being available for that reason alone, apart from just hoping to generic good form and playing well again, is really on my mind.”
Of course Brett Brown would turn that question around (it was actually about getting Dario back into form) and make the focus about the defensive side of the game. But he’s right, last night was a good dry run to get Saric back into a defensive mindset, and get him re-acclimated as they run into James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk in the playoffs, or even Hassan Whiteside or Bam Adebayo if Brown goes to the Saric/Ilyasova small-ball look at the 5 and 4 spots.
However Brown approaches the Heat series, I think Sixers fans should feel good about Saric heading into Saturday, based on what we saw last night.
The second biggest takeaway of the night
It was the defense.
They held Milwaukee under 100 points for the first time in the Bucks’ last seven games. This is a decent offensive team that averaged 106.5 in the regular season, but struggled to hit 90 last night after getting gobsmacked in the first half.
Brown was asked last night if there was one thing that he could take from the regular season, one thing that really stood out to him, and he answered in a macro sense, talking about his team’s commitment to a specific brand of basketball and also the culture that’s being built both inside and outside of the locker room. In the past, he’s spoken of the high-level team defense and the way in which his players share the ball (they had 35 assists last night, so go figure).
For me, it’s more about the defense, and I used to be one of those people who said, “ah bro the NBA is shit because they don’t play defense,” but now that I understand the game a bit better, I can really appreciate this:
That’s really something to be proud of, the fact that a young-ish team finished third in the NBA in defensive rating, anchored by Joel Embiid but really reinforced in the front court with an athletic group of switching guards and position-less wing types (Covington) who really “brought” it on most nights.
I think that’s what’s most appreciated by a Philly crowd, because even if the shots aren’t falling, you can always show up with the same defensive effort every night, and I think that’s what you saw more than anything this year.
The third biggest takeaway of the night
Markelle Fultz and the triple-double.
He became the youngest player in NBA history to bag a triple-dub (19 years and 317 days), passing Lonzo Ball, who set a new record earlier this season.
Just watch the reactions:
— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) April 12, 2018
Post-game, Brown was asked about Fultz’s teammates going crazy to celebrate the achievement:
“I mean, if you said what’s the most impressive thing of the night, that’s mine. When you get into the coaching rhythm you’re not really aware of statistics and I wasn’t aware that he was that close to a triple-double. To see his teammates react to Markelle Fultz was special. I think it’s a snapshot into who these guys are, I think it’s a real-time example of how you’ve heard me say they play together, they co-exist, we pass the ball and this and that. That’s real. It doesn’t require a coach throwing out some math, there’s a human side to that action that you just described that is special.”
Just take a step back and think about all of the ups and downs we’ve had with Fultz this year. The shoulder, the video clips, the free throws, the return, the awkward Bryan Colangelo press conferences, the non-answer to the injury questions, etc. There’s an ultimate irony to Fultz finishing his rookie season with a triple-double while also logging a season-high 25 minutes.
And I think that’s similarly important to what I mentioned with Saric above, just getting him significant run in playoff preparation. Fultz really has established himself as a legitimate postseason option, a guy who I think should be running the second unit on Saturday the same way he’s been doing it since returning to the lineup.
Think about it, your first and second teams look like this in the playoffs:
- Johnson/Holmes/Saric stretch-5
Of course you’ve got a lot of flex with that second team. You can run the Ilyasova/Saric 4/5 stretch look, use Covington as a four, play McConnell alongside Fultz or just leave Belinelli as the #2. Brown has much more to work with going into the postseason, and a lot of it has to do with Markelle’s improbable turnaround.
- “Next man up” is a lame cliche, but Philly sports teams have really proven it to be true this year. Nick Foles? Big V? Corey Clement? Jake Elliott? Justin Anderson played the part last night, pouring in a season-high 25 points on 9-17 shooting. You can do worse than turning to him as a depth piece in the playoffs.
- Robert Covington didn’t do much on the offensive end but was all over the place last night defensively. Three more steals for Roco to finish 11th in the NBA with 1.7 per game. He tied Paul George for 1st place with 3.9 deflections per game this season.
- 15 minutes for Amir Johnson and 27 for Richaun Holmes, who got extended run in the blowout. I think 15-17 is probably what you’re getting from Amir in the playoffs until Embiid returns.
- 4/6/7 from Ben Simmons last night, who wasn’t feeling well Tuesday but completed the back-to-back. He’ll get two days to rest up before the playoffs.
- Joel Embiid spoke pre game and said he feels good, but that it’s unlikely he returns for game one. I was told that game three is the expectation.
He seems to be in good spirits:
— Christian Crosby (@ChristianCrosby) April 12, 2018
I’ll do a stat dump story probably after the postseason, but we’ll switch it over to playoff preview mode for now.