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With 18 Games Left, It’s Now or Never for this Sixers Team

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Enough screwing around.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday night in Northern California, the Sixers fumbled away a game-long lead in the fourth quarter against the lowly Golden State Warriors. Suddenly down 3 with less than ten seconds left, the Sixers inbounded the ball to Furkan Korkmaz, whose enormous, fluorescent foot landed out of bounds, turning the ball back over to Golden State and all but sealing yet another road loss. The sequence was emblematic of the team’s close-but-no-cigar road trip, and their putrid play away from the Wells Fargo Center all season. The team finished the West Coast trip going 1-3, with losses against the LA Clippers, LA Lakers, and the Warriors, beating only the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night.

The Sixers were already set to play without stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and then also lost guard Josh Richardson in the second quarter of the Clippers game after he fell concussed to the hardwood in a collision with Alec Burks.

If you’re looking for silver linings from this stretch, they would be: 1) Shake Milton broke out and seems to now have a stranglehold on the 5th starter spot when (if?) everyone is healthy; 2) Tobias Harris (despite a poor-shooting first half Saturday night) upped his game and carried more scoring load in an efficient manner; and 3) Al Horford showed a pulse for the first time in months with impressive performances against (albeit meager competition in) Sacramento and Golden State. The team showed heart in LA against two teams they were simply unable to beat, given the circumstances.

That’s about it.

The Sixers are 38-26, currently sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Standings-wise, the highest realistically attainable goal appears to be the 4-seed, currently owned by Miami, 2.5 games ahead.

This season has been a slog. The weight of preseason expectations has made the viewing process particularly fraught for Sixers fans everywhere. If they win — they’re supposed to, now go on a winning streak. If they lose — how could you? Fire the coach. The team’s big surprise offseason signing proved to be a poor fit with the team’s integral players, and in the first season of a massive 4-year-deal, he was justifiably relegated to playing rotation minutes off the bench. The team has been stung by injuries to many key players throughout the season, making it hard to gather much momentum and continuity. They’ve been simply awful on the road and their overall record is only where it is thanks to the team’s mastery of beating visitors in Philly.

The Sixers have to look in the mirror. The teams above them in the standings simply don’t look bad as often as the Sixers do. They don’t play down to their competition as willingly as the Sixers do. With 18 games left in the regular season, it’s now or never for the Sixers to realize the potential they claim to have. For once, some things are lining up in their favor.

Owners of the league’s cushiest remaining schedule (editor’s note: third-easiest following Saturday’s games, per Tankathon.com), the Sixers are likely to get Joel Embiid back at some point this week. If Embiid is at full strength, he can single-handedly change the calculus for the team’s inconsistent offense and anemic defense. The Ben Simmons news is a bit less solid, but an update this week could certainly shine some light on the timetable for which the team should be without the star guard. With three off days in between games, one would think the team should be reasonably optimistic about Josh Richardson’s availability at some point this week.

Of the 18 games left on the schedule, 11 are at home. The toughest opponents remaining — the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks — will all be traveling to Philadelphia.

If it’s ever going to happen for this particular Sixers team — this head coach, this GM, this group of players not named Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid — it has to happen now. Incumbent upon this group is the task of finally playing like they actually mean it when they chant ‘CHIP’ in unison when breaking the huddle. They’re easily the most annoying frustrating maddening underperforming mercurial team in the league. They say they’re contenders, well, we’re all tired of hearing about it.

Show us.

Rattle off nine straight wins. Go 15-3 to close out the year. Once again become the team nobody wants to play in the springtime.

On a podcast last week, ESPN’s Senior NBA Writer Zach Lowe talked with colleague Kevin Arnovitz about the Milwaukee Bucks and whether or not any team in the conference could conquer them four times in seven games. The Sixers were a total afterthought. They deserved to be.

If this ceiling is anywhere within this group — what we saw in the Milwaukee game on Christmas, the Heat game in November, or the Clippers game before the All-Star break, weren’t merely fleeting apparitions of the team they could be but really aren’t — well, it’s now or never.