Entering the postseason, one of the counterpoints to the Sixers hype train was that the team “wasn’t ready”. While many of Philadelphia’s top role players had previous playoff experience, all of the starters other than J.J. Redick had combined for zero postseason minutes prior to last week.
As the argument followed, one of the stereotypical weaknesses of an inexperienced team is an inability to take care of the basketball. The Sixers certainly fit the description during the regular season, finishing last in the NBA in turnovers per game (16.5) and turnover percentage (16.1%). It was a reasonable concern heading into the series against Miami that those issues would be exacerbated in the pressure cooker that is the postseason.
Instead, across their first three playoff games, the Sixers started taking care of the ball even better than during their 16-game winning streak to end the regular season. In games 1-3, Philadelphia had a 12.3% turnover percentage, losing the ball just 12.7 times per game, marks that would have been top-4 in the league during the regular season.
Of course, everything came completely unraveled in that department during Saturday afternoon’s Game 4. Philadelphia committed 24 turnovers in the first three quarters alone, ending the contest with 27 team turnovers and a 24.7% turnover percentage. It was reminiscent of a Mortal Kombat mirror match where instead of having to face some fearsome new enemy, the Sixers had to confront their own weaknesses made flesh.
Because although Josh Richardson seemingly has more arms than Vishnu, much of the damage for the Sixers was self-inflicted. Joel Embiid personally committed 8 turnovers, as it was glaringly obvious the mask was giving him fits. Twice the ball went sailing away after he didn’t get the call on his rip-through move, and on two other occasions, he simply stumbled over himself and had to toss the ball into the air in hopes that a teammate would come down with it.
The big man was running around like a racehorse wearing blinders who can’t see more than the three feet directly in front of him. There is zero chance he was able to see Goran Dragic here in his peripheral vision, the kind of thing that’s generally considered important when attempting to dribble the basketball.
The team’s nominal ball handlers didn’t fare much better. The two Sixers point guards, Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell, combined for 10 turnovers across the game’s full 48 minutes. Simmons gave the ball away 7 times himself, with a few passes that were genuine head-scratchers.
Travels, guys stepping out of bounds unnecessarily, it was a comedy of errors for the Sixers across the first three quarters. Yet, through it all, they did enough to stay within 4 points heading into the final period, striking distance which proved close enough to pull out the victory.
“I’m shocked we won this game.” So said Brett Brown in the post-game press conference, and history certainly supports his level of disbelief. Dating back to 1983-84 (when Basketball Reference’s searchable turnover database begins), the 27 turnovers ties the second-highest total ever for a winning team in a playoff game (the Nets coughed it up 28 times in beating the Sixers all the way back in ‘84). As Brown would also say, “the fact that you can actually win a playoff game with this volume of turnovers is mind-boggling.”
Mind-boggling is also a fair way to describe the rapid rise for the Sixers’ chances this last month or so. Philadelphia has won 19 of its past 20 games. This team is one win away from moving on to the Eastern Conference semifinals, in a bracket containing a MASH unit Celtics squad and where LeBron James is already trailing Indiana two games to one. Simply put, the Sixers look poised to take on and overcome any opponent that crosses their path, even if the opponent is occasionally themselves.