The Philadelphia 76ers entered the All-Star break riding a four-game winning streak that sees them firmly situated in third place in the Eastern Conference standings. However, after a week for everyone to rest, recharge, and watch Mac McClung highlights, the Sixers have no time to rest on their laurels coming out of the break. The upcoming schedule over the next two weeks is absolutely brutal. Take a look:
2/23 vs. (35-22) Grizzlies
2/25 vs. (42-17) Celtics
2/27 vs. (32-27) Heat
3/1 at (32-27) Heat
3/2 at (31-29) Mavericks
3/4 at (41-17) Bucks
That’s a stretch against all playoff teams, including three of the four top-two seeds in each conference. It’s part of a 25-game schedule to end the regular season that ranks as the toughest in the entire NBA (courtesy of Tankathon):
While it’s not make or break, because nothing outside of what happens in late-April and May will really be make or break for this Philadelphia squad, these next two weeks could be extremely telling about the nature of this roster’s ceiling. A strong showing, and the Sixers could possibly find themselves in a position to grab a top-two seed in the East heading into the home stretch of the regular season. They currently sit three games back of Boston and 2.5 games behind Milwaukee. At the very least, Philadelphia can show they very much belong in the conversation among the elite tier of teams this season.
On the other hand, if the team slips a bit during this upcoming stretch, they could fall back behind Cleveland, who currently sit two games back of the Sixers (the last meeting between the teams on March 15 in Cleveland will determine a potential tiebreaker). The Cavaliers have been surging, winners of eight of their last 10 heading into the break (which, admittedly, included the loss to the Sixers). You also might have noticed in the graphic above that the Cavs are on the opposite end of the spectrum from Philadelphia in terms of remaining strength of schedule, with just the 27th-most difficult slate. So any hiccups from the Sixers and you can expect Cleveland will be ready to pounce.
So that’s what could be at stake over the next couple weeks: positioning to maybe secure a top-two seed, with home-court advantage in the second round and a much easier playoff path, or a possible slide to fourth and the gauntlet that would create for this team to achieve its lofty goals this summer. Fortunately, outside of the lingering Joel Embiid bumps and bruises, the Sixers are relatively healthy and should have all hands on deck for this important portion of the schedule. Will they be up to the challenge, able to integrate their couple new faces and show that any path to the Finals will at least have to consider Philadelphia? Or will old concerns arise leading us to wonder what major moves will need to be made this summer? We’ll find out starting tomorrow night against Memphis.