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Sixers vs. Cavs preview: The final embers of Philadelphia’s tank are burning out

It’s the final hour of the Process era.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers fans are used to this. It’s the final day in March, their favorite team is eliminated from the playoffs, and there’s nothing left for the guys to play for but pride.

Though this group has every excuse to mail it in, non-effort is not an option for them. Stripped down to a skeleton crew, they continue to find ways to challenge teams with way more talent on hand. They face a considerable deficit in the talent department tonight, even if Cleveland is sputtering in the season’s final weeks.

This could very well be the last March where the Sixers close out the month with different goals than LeBron James’ squad. Health permitting, next spring should have the team in the midst of an earnest playoff push, with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and this summer’s first-round pick providing the team with that extra oomph they need to jostle into the playoff picture.

If there’s a big takeaway from this season, it’s that the Sixers are too good to outright tank now. Robert Covington is one of the league’s best wing defenders and shows flashes of offensive improvement every day. Dario Saric’s play has helped fans avoid dwelling on injuries to the two most “important” rookies expected to feature in 2017. Even players relegated to the bench for most of the year — sup, Richaun Holmes — have made the most of late-season lineup openings.

The preview of what might be with Embiid on the court brought us all closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. Whether it’s the depth of this upcoming draft class or confidence inspired by the rookie center’s dominance, I’ve felt less concerned about the wins and losses this spring.

Next year’s Sixers will go through a ton of growing pains, but the intent of their season will be clear. The players that were selected to jump-start the rebuild will start to reach the end of their rookie deals. Bryan Colangelo will have to figure out what to do about extending Embiid and Covington, two players who should figure into the team’s long-term plans. Once the big-money extensions start getting handed down, things get real. It’s no longer a bunch of plucky young guys, it’s a cast of well-paid studs expected to take the program to the next level.

In some respects, this is the last moment of peace for the Sixers and their fans. The stakes continue to rise each year, and with the undermanned squad flirting with tripling last year’s win total, the public will naturally expect continued progress in 2017-18.

Most of these guys will welcome that rise in expectations. Teams may thrive as underdogs, but no player wants to walk out on the court against a team like Cleveland and feel like they’re in a David vs. Goliath matchup. The goal next season will be to change what opponents expect when they stand toe-to-toe with the 76ers. Being a plucky upstart will no longer be enough; the Sixers want to earnestly challenge teams like the Cavs, not capitalize because their foe doesn’t take the matchup seriously enough.

The Sixers have every right to believe they will be trending upward when they play in March 2018. They come out and push teams to the brink every night despite player after player going down with injuries. In the absence of superstar presence, they have built a culture of hard work and hard-nosed basketball, and they force teams to take them seriously.

The complexion of the Eastern Conference is undergoing a makeover. Carmelo Anthony is slowly becoming a non-factor. John Wall and Bradley Beal are evolving into the elite backcourt many thought they could be. Paul George could be out the door in Indiana, ditto Jimmy Butler in Chicago. This is the unstable conference the Sixers will try to ascend in, and they can compete with anyone in that group — at least in the regular season — once all their talent is on hand.

So cherish these final moments of carefree basketball. Worn down as the fanbase may be, these late-season doldrums will make next year’s push for the postseason all the sweeter.

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