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What to Watch For in the Final Month of the Regular Season

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Hold on Sixers fans, we’re coming in for a landing.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With just about a month left of the 2018-2019 NBA regular season, the Sixers sit at 3rd place in the Eastern Conference, percentage points above the Indiana Pacers. If the season were to end today (and it doesn’t — I just told you that), the Sixers would face off against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. Given the short amount of time left on the calendar and the cavalcade of new pieces on the Sixers roster since February’s trade deadline, Brett Brown is tasked with helping his team gel into a legitimate contender over the final 15 games of this season. Let’s assess what we’d like to see before the playoffs begin in April.

Health

First and foremost, it’s absolutely integral that the Sixers starters spend the lion’s share of the remainder of the season on the court playing together. A stray rest day here and there (Jimmy Butler tonight vs. Cleveland, one soon for JJ Redick for the love of god) aside, the team’s pieces need to learn how best to play together and compliment one another. The early returns on the new Phantastic Phive starting lineup have been very good:

Brett Brown and company should like their chances at the East as much as anyone, provided the Sixers enter the playoffs as a healthy team.

Chief among the health concerns, of course, is Joel Embiid. The hope here is that the 3 week sabbatical following the All-Star break that the center was given to deal with knee soreness was just enough to reinvigorate and rest up the big man in time for the playoffs. If Sunday’s game against Indiana was any indication, the time off was just what he needed.

Who will win ‘The Tournament’?

Following the trade deadline, Brett Brown said that the Sixers would be holding somewhat of a three-headed tournament for the primary bench wing role — the final role yet to be solidified on the team. The contestants were Jonathon Simmons, James Ennis III and Furkan Korkmaz. Bowing out the race almost immediately, Korkmaz rushed to tear his meniscus as a tribute to ghosts of Sixers past to clear the field. Class move.

That left us with Simmons and Ennis, who have mostly been varying degrees of bad in their short stint with the Sixers. Simmons is a guard and theoretically can guard guards (guard?), and is more sure of his ability off the dribble than anyone I’ve ever seen. Ennis, meanwhile, is a bigger body more suited to guard 3s and 4s. With the Sixers, from three-point-range, Simmons has shot 36% on only one attempt per game, while Ennis has has made 25% in nearly 2.

While neither have impressed, to say the least, it seems to be James Ennis III currently in the lead. Personally, I’d love to see the Sixers give Shake Milton look with the big club in these final games, but that seems unlikely. While Jon Simmons might be called upon late in games as a defensive sub for JJ, this is James Ennis III’s job to lose. What a sentence.

Keep in mind: once the playoffs begin, rotations get pared down in a big way. Teams often go only 8-deep, and the starters play 35+ minutes apiece. For the Sixers, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at TJ McConnell, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic OR Jonah Bolden off the pine. The tournament winner should receive minimal playoff minutes, if any.

Seeding

As 15 games remain in the regular season, a number of scenarios for the Sixers first round matchup are in play. As previously noted, the current setup would have the third-seeded Sixers hosting the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets. The surprising Nets team would present the Sixers with a complex (albeit not gargantuan) first test. While the Nets lack experience and star power, they have a deep roster full of scoring guards, in newly minted All-Star D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Joe Harris. The Sixers’ challenges in defending opposing guards has been no secret. They’ve also lost 2 of the 3 matchups between the two teams thus far.

The Nets, however, currently hold only a half-game lead on the 6-seed over the surging Detroit Pistons, who are 8-2 in their last 10. The Pistons are led by a revelatory Blake Griffin, (who earlier in the season dropped a 50-piece on Philly) and Joel Embiid’s son Andre Drummond. The Sixers have had more success against Detroit than against Brooklyn, winning 3 of the 4 previous matchups thus far. If the Sixers stay in the 6th seed, the question could be whether fans would rather face the upstart, guard-heavy nets, or the veteran Pistons and head coach Dwane Casey.

Of course, there is still the chance that the Sixers falter in the remaining games and wind up as the 4 or even 5 seed in the Eastern conference. That scenario would result in a first round matchup against the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers or the Boston Celtics. The Sixers have handled Indiana quite well, and have notoriously struggled against the Celtics.

Irrespective of their opponent, home court in the first round should prove especially important to a Sixers team that has amassed a 26-9 (nice) record at the Wells Fargo Center. The schedule gods seem to have worked in the Sixers favor as they jockey for position down the stretch:

It’s almost playoff time, friends. Let’s stay healthy and keep that 3 seed.