There’s only so much stock that one can (and should) put into regular season performance. Sometimes, the regular season serves as an accurate predictor of the teams most prepared to wreak havoc in the playoffs. In other seasons, it’s viewed as a lengthy but altogether hollow appetizer for the real tournament. Oftentimes the league’s best teams pre-playoffs and post-playoffs are quite different. LeBron James’ Cavaliers, of course, would famously take it easy during the 82-game marathon, worried more about maintaining a healthy roster than climbing in the Eastern Conference standings. By the same token, teams like the 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks or the Lowry-DeRozan Toronto Raptors ran roughshod through the regular season, only to be exposed in the playoffs at the hands of a lower-seeded team with a bigger and more prepared star.
All of this is to say that we ought to take the ups and downs of the regular season with a grain of salt.
As much as we can use any small sampling of games to tell a larger story about a team, the seven matchups that lie ahead on the schedule for the Sixers could be the most indicative of its playoff prospects.
Here is that stretch, and a few notes about what we might learn watching each game.
Monday, April 12 @ Dallas Mavericks
When these teams last faced off, the Sixers played solid two-way basketball from start to finish. The Sixers won 111-97, as the score drew a scosche closer when Doc Rivers emptied the bench with about 5 minutes remaining.
The story of the game was Ben Simmons’ defense on MVP candidate Luka Doncic. Simmons blanketed Doncic, limiting him to only 13 shot attempts (he averages 21), 7 turnovers and a -20 to show for it.
Simmons and the Sixers will look to replicate that performance on Monday night. A change from the first matchup, the Mavericks should have starting big man Kristaps Porzingis at the ready.
Wednesday, April 14 vs. Brooklyn Nets
The heavyweight matchup we’ve all been waiting for.
Though these teams have met twice already this season, this will be the closest thing to full-strength that both teams can claim. Brooklyn will unfortunately likely be without its lead ball-handler in James Harden, who’s likely to miss another week due to injury. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, however, should play — in addition to recent Nets signings Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Two questions come to mind when thinking about this face-off: Who will Ben Simmons guard? And how will the Nets defend Joel Embiid?
The first question is likely rather simple, as Simmons is most likely set to guard Kevin Durant. At full strength, however, the question becomes whether to deploy Simmons on Durant or Harden.
Embiid is, of course, the giant advantage the Sixers ought to have over Brooklyn, a team with little rim protection and no real stopper at the 5. Will the Nets single-cover Embiid and thus allow him to get his, or double-team him and force him to make smart passes and force the Sixers’ shooters to beat them? I can’t wait to find out.
Friday, April 16 vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Storylines are aplenty in this one. Doc Rivers vs. Tyronn Lue. Ben Simmons vs. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Seth Curry vs. Paul George (gulp).
The Clippers beat the Sixers in their last matchup at the end of March, though the Sixers played without Embiid.
This could be a big game, defensively, for Tobias Harris. He’ll likely get the assignment of the whomever out of Leonard or George isn’t guarded by Simmons.
The Clippers are 36-18, third in the West.
Monday, April 19 vs. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are only 25-28 (10th in the West), but they roster a true perennial MVP candidate in Steph Curry. Curry is having an incredible individual season, and provides a constant headache for opposing players and coaches. The big dilemma for the Sixers will lie in how it decides to defend Curry. Simmons is the team’s best perimeter defender by a longshot, but Curry runs off of so many screens that the Sixers may be judicious in that particular assignment. Look for Steph’s brother, Seth, to spend some time on him, in addition to Matisse Thybulle off the bench.
Wednesday, April 21 vs. Phoenix Suns
In the first night of a back-to-back, the Sixers will close out their homestand with the second-seeded Suns. The Suns got the better of Philly in the teams’ prior meeting this year, 120-111, in February. While Embiid (35 points) was able to have his way with Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker proved to be an extremely difficult cover for Simmons, as he tallied 36 points of his own.
Then, of course, there’s the never-ending nuisance that is Chris Paul.
We’ll see if Doc Rivers and his staff have Embiid playing both nights of the back-to-back — my guess is that if he’s healthy, he will.
Thursday, April 22 and Saturday, April 24 @ Milwaukee Bucks
Oh yeah, the Bucks. Don’t forget about them. Currently 32-20 and 3.5 games behind the Sixers and Brooklyn, Milwaukee is again enjoying a solid regular season.
In the only prior meeting between these two teams back in March, the Bucks emerged victorious in overtime, 109-105. The Sixers — short Joel Embiid — got off to an excellent start in this game, beating Milwaukee 45-31 in the first half. The Bucks stormed back in the second half, of course, and the Sixers needed a last-second Furkan Korkmaz three to send the game to an extra frame. Giannis Antetokounmpo simply overpowered the Sixers in extra time, however. This game not only showed moxy from a Sixers team without its MVP, but it also served as the first time in his professional career that Ben Simmons showed the ability to credibly defend Giannis. The question now for Doc Rivers will be whether to return to that matchup, or to enlist Joel Embiid to guard the two-time MVP, as he’s done in the past.
The Sixers will aim to lengthen the distance between Philly and Milwaukee in the standings.
Seven games, four at home, three on the road. Each of them nationally televised.
It’s going to be important to note how this Sixers team measures up to a difficult slate of opponents as it aims to run away with the top seed in the East.