Just three games now separate the Philadelphia 76ers from the start of the postseason, but it’s been a couple weeks since the Sixers decided to try and hit the SIM REST OF REGULAR SEASON button in real life. Turns out, real life isn’t NBA 2K, and you actually need to try in the NBA, even against theoretically less talented competition. Like Adam Sandler’s character’s in Click, the Sixers have discovered that fast-forwarding through life can prove disastrous. The team has lost three straight games and five of their last seven. All the good vibes of mid-March have completely evaporated, and the third seed in the Eastern Conference is no longer as secured as once believed.
There is a crucial recent standings update, however. The Celtics defeated the Pacers Friday night, meaning Indiana can no longer finish as the third seed, and a dreaded Sixers-Celtics first-round playoff series is no longer a possibility. However, Philadelphia still needs two combined wins or Boston losses to clinch the third seed ahead of the Celtics.
With two games remaining against the tank-tastic Bulls, and one against the recently reeling Heat, two wins shouldn’t be a problem. But you might have said the same thing about facing the Hawks. Or the Magic. Or the Mavericks. Or the Hawks again. Or a two-possession lead with under three minutes left against the Bucks. The point is, the Sixers need to start acting like these games matter again, because they do.
As of this morning, who will take the court for Philadelphia remains an open question. Joel Embiid (knee) and Jimmy Butler (back) are both listed as questionable. Like Embiid, JJ Redick played against Milwaukee, but is still listed as day-to-day with his sore quad, and you’d like to see him get a rest day sometime down the stretch. James Ennis is out until at least midway through the first round of the playoffs, and whether Zhaire Smith can work his way into the playoff rotation has become the team’s most intriguing storyline from a personnel perspective.
On the opposing bench, despite being locked in at the fourth-worst record, the Bulls are really embracing tanking down the stretch. Lauri Markkanen has been sat down for the rest of the season due to extreme fatigue. Otto Porter is out with a right rotator cuff injury, Zach LaVine is out with a right thigh contusion and right patellar tendonitis, and Kris Dunn is doubtful with a sore back.
Currently, Chicago’s offense is revolving around Robin Lopez post-ups like it’s 2010. Somebody named Walter Lemon, Jr. led the team in scoring last game. JaKarr Sampson played 29 minutes last game, which is a strategy listed on page 3 of the How to Tank in the Modern NBA manual Sam Hinkie hands out at the Sloan Sports Conference every year.
The Sixers should absolutely win this game. But they need to also come to the conclusion that they need to win it. Pull a Nike and Just Do It, so we can stop having this third seed thing hovering over our heads. The playoffs will still be there afterwards.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Chicago Bulls
When: 8:00 pm EST
Where: United Center, Chicago, IL
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia; NBA TV
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic