We all understand that the NBA has an 82-game regular season schedule. That being said, there are a few check points along the way to read how any particular team is playing. There are a total of three.
The first read is to understand where the team is cohesively on and off the court after the Christmas holiday, or directly after the Christmas Day game if it applies. The 76ers had a great presentation on Sunday, walking away from Madison Square Garden with an impressive win, 119-112, over the division rival New York Knicks. That was the team’s eighth consecutive victory, and everything looks like it is finally coming together. Joel Embiid continues to play at an MVP level, and James Harden has returned to the lineup without missing a beat. De’Anthony Melton has proven to be a key acquisition and Tobias Harris is the glue who has been holding everything together through the ups, downs, injuries, lineup changes, and trade rumors.
The second marker is the NBA All-Star Weekend which is the weeklong vacation for the teams to participate in the festivities and get some much-needed rest. The good-to-great franchises have established themselves to this point as a contender for the title, while the rest of the association either jockeys for playoff position or a better opportunity for a high draft pick aka the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. The 76ers have a little over seven weeks until the winter break to stay on course and solidify themselves as a conference contender.
The East to this point is a race between five teams: Boston, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. This is the upper crust, while New York, Indiana, Miami, and Atlanta continue to be relevant, however inconsistent in turning the corner and emerging as a really good team.
The question remains — can Philadelphia maintain and stay on course? Only time will tell. They had their win streak snapped by the feisty Washington Wizards on Tuesday, 116-111. Embiid led the 76ers with 48 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, and three steals, while Harden added 26 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists, and Harris contributed 15 points, four rebounds, two blocks, two assists, and a steal. Ultimately, there was a lapse in defensive intensity and not much further contribution from the rest of the team other than Montrez Harrell who was solid in limited action with nine points, three rebounds, and one block.
The time is near for Coach Doc Rivers to have his rotations set, and his mind open to making critical adjustments throughout the game. In fairness, Rivers has been working with a roster who has lost key players due to injury. Tyrese Maxey is expected back into the lineup this week and he will add much needed depth, along with more firepower on the offensive end.
Last and more importantly, the third unit of measure is toward the end of the year in April as teams are either making plans for summer vacation, or they are working to play their best basketball before the playoffs begin. The 76ers got off to a slow start, and with a little space and opportunity, they were able to turn things around and play to their potential. They exceeded the expectations on Christmas, and they have a solid starting five, and high-quality rotational pieces off the bench.
The goal should be to work Maxey back into the fold, focus on rebounding the ball on both ends of the court, and move toward establishing a defensive presence that would make the 90’s Detroit Bad Boys Pistons envious. This may be easier said than done, due to the versatility of Melton who replaced Harden when he went out earlier last month, and he has stayed with the starters due to the injury to Maxey. Melton has given his all with averages of 12.1 points, 3.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.2-steals per contest.
Maxey will more than likely play with a minutes restriction, yet there will be some changes once he is given the signal to play his usual amount of time, which is approximately 36-minutes a game. An embarrassment of riches is a great problem to have, especially as the team looks to separate from the pack and vie for a top seed in the coming months.
The coaching staff will be up for the challenge and the team should have a better offensive attack, with more personnel and athleticism on the perimeter. Melton has set the tone defensively, and it will be interesting to see how his role is defined in both the short and long term.
Guard play, rebounding and team defense are big factors in determining how far this team will go in the postseason. The preparation for that time will resume with two games remaining on the schedule before the curtain falls for a final time on the year 2022.