There are four games remaining on the third-placed, 51-27 Sixers’ schedule.
Philadelphia will host the Boston Celtics Tuesday. That game might well be the last look we get at these Sixers playing all-out to win a ballgame until the postseason. The result may not have a ton of bearing on the ultimate playoff seeding, yet you get the sense there’s enough at stake it’s going to have some game-of-the-year atmosphere at The Center.
After that they host the seventh-placed Miami Heat on Thursday, their final regular season home game.
By Friday they’ll be in Atlanta to battle the Hawks, (Trae Young and co. tied for eighth place with Pascal Siakam’s Toronto Raptors), the second of a back-to-back. You know some key Sixers will get a night off on both sides of that final B2B.
And by Easter Sunday, they’ll have driven to Brooklyn for what figures to be a pre-season vibey look at our presumptive Nets at Sixers first-round matchup.
Basketball-Reference.com says the Sixers have a 99 percent hammer-lock on the third seed. They need just one more victory in that final four to to lock it up.
If they cannot do it, and the Cleveland Cavaliers sweep their final three (two down in Orlando before they host the Hornets), Philly will drop down to the fourth seed. But with Julius Randle’s health status up in the air, maybe hosting the New York Knicks (the likely fifth seed) isn’t the worst thing in the world?
In more likely scenarios, Brooklyn is given a 92 percent chance to clinch the sixth seed, pitting the two teams who famously swapped James Harden and Ben Simmons for each other a year ago in round one.
Should the Sixers just shut it all down until the playoffs, ensuring health if not rhythm, momentum, or MVP considerations?
No Sixers were on the injury report last game vs. Milwaukee. None are presently for the final showdown vs. Boston, although Robert Williams is OUT, and Jaylen Brown is listed questionable with “low back pain.”
It’s curious that Embiid and Harden have not been present on the injury report recently, given how candid each star has been about his respective ailments dating back to the loss to Chicago.
Every team has their bumps and bruises this time of year. But the Sixers’ stars simply cannot be limping into the playoffs while realistically hoping to win the city’s first NBA championship since 1983.
Embiid looked like the best player on the planet not long ago, dropping 46 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists in a loss to the Golden State Warriors. But his calf tightened up on him and he hasn’t looked quite as dominant since.
Maybe that’s by design.
Per Ky Carlin, SixersWire, following the double-digit loss to the first placed Bucks, Embiid laid out his goals for the home stretch:
“Staying healthy,” he said succinctly. “I haven’t been as aggressive the last couple of games. Tonight (Sunday), I was a little bit, but I missed a lot of shots. I missed a lot of 3s, actually. So I just gotta get back to really my dominant stuff, and as a team, just get together and figure it out....
“Just trying to, I wouldn’t say take it easy, but trying to make sure you don’t overdo it so something else happens,” he explained. “There’s some stuff you can’t mess around with, but every single day, it’s getting better. So that’s the key. Getting healthy and all of us getting healthy and getting our rhythm back.”
Credit to Joel for not pushing too hard for these individual accolades. You have to know it would be a tremendous honor for him if he won his second scoring title and his first MVP this summer.
Having come so painfully close the last two seasons, finishing as runner-up to Nikola Jokic twice, yeesh, it would really sting any normal human being to fall short a third time at the hands of the voters. Embiid is favored per the odds, but Jokic and Giannis will both have valid cases.
So should the Sixers totally shut their stars down, since they’re all but locked into a three seed? No.
If Embiid wants to continue playing a couple more games down the stretch and is given the green-light by the med staff, I wouldn’t want to be the one to come down with any mandate dictating he must sit. Finishing the year on a major slide, winding up a four seed, might just cost him the damn MVP award and cost the team some confidence.
On the other hand, I would strongly suggest he skip at least one if not two or three of the remaining ballgames; particularly if they can somehow beat Boston Tuesday.
If they beat Boston, I would be perfectly content with Joel sitting out the final three, or at least making him sign some lengthy paperwork promising to avoid dunks, track-down blocks, stadium chair dives, and requiring he wear his face mask, just in case. Kidding … but maybe it’s a good idea.
Then there is James Harden, a bigger concern health-wise in my opinion than Embiid right now.
Harden popped up on the injury report with foot soreness back in mid-January. It sounds like the Achilles injury that cost him four recent games is a flare up of that same months-long issue.
Harden has, to my eye, looked a step slow at times in the second half of several recent ballgames upon return:
James Harden, in 3 games since returning from Achilles soreness.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 3, 2023
12 -21 fg
5 - 16 fg
(Does the heel tighten up a little at the break?)
Of course, the Milwaukee Bucks would prefer to take credit for shutting him down. Per Giannis after a 117-104 sleeper in the rematch Sunday, told to Eric Nehm, via The Athletic:
“There were times that he made that pass. There were times that we were able to get deflections. There were times that Jrue stole the ball. Sometimes I kicked the ball. I think it just gets them out of rhythm. We knew that coming in, and we were just trying to get them out of rhythm, trying to make him go all the way to Brook or Bobby (Portis) or me. Eliminate the pocket pass to Joel as much as we can.”
The way the Bucks defended the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll may offer a blueprint for teams like the Nets and Celtics on how to slow down Philly’s best weapon.
But obsessive Sixers fans will know, there was a pretty clear difference physically between the Harden we saw on March 4, the one who dropped 38 points in a signature win, and the one we saw on April 2 who scored just 11 points on 4-of-9 from the floor.
I would absolutely pressure Harden to rest more than I would Embiid. And if James insists upon playing, I’d try to get him and Doc Rivers to agree to a minutes restriction of some sort at least.
So how should Daryl Morey, Doc Rivers and the med staff play it here?
The Bucks need three wins (any combination of Bucks wins or Celtics losses) to clinch the East’s top seed. The Celtics can lock up the second seed with a single win, and they can still win the one seed with six wins (basically a combination of four Celtics wins and a couple Bucks losses).
So Boston will likely be all systems go in Philadelphia tomorrow.
The Sixers opened as -1 point favorites on DraftKings, and that’s already moved to -1.5.
I’d go for the big momentum generating win over the Celtics on Tuesday. Losing all four games this season to the dreaded Celtics, the team’s most likely second-round opponent, wouldn’t incite a ton of confidence heading into the postseason, would it? They’ve already dropped the first three.
A big win might do wonders for that Sixers locker room. And it might even close the door on a tight MVP race for Joel if he can get this dang leprechaun off his back.
What happens next in the event of a win or a loss is tricky.
I think no matter what happens vs. Boston, the Sixers should heavily prioritize load management for the subsequent Heat, Hawks and Nets games.
You don’t know what shape your opponent will be in, anyway.
#Heat’s Bam Adebayo, who ‘could barely walk,’ hopes to play in Tuesday’s key game at Detroit #NBA https://t.co/DPDS1ruh0T pic.twitter.com/pDuUhoR0vj— Sun Sentinel Sports (@Sentinel_Sports) April 3, 2023
This may sound a bit extreme, since Harden said to reporters after the win vs. Toronto that “I feel good” (twice) and seemed to be confused why he was being asked about his Achilles.
But I think the 2018 MVP’s intent there was to downplay the panic he may have inadvertently caused by admitting “I don’t think it’s just gonna completely go away,” days prior.
Would that impact rhythm? Yeah, probably but....
When Harden returned vs. the Dallas Mavericks, he skipped one of his first pocket pass attempts to Embiid straight out of bounds. And he had an uncharacteristic amount of trouble getting them to Joel vs. the Bucks, as Giannis discussed above.
So there is certainly a strong argument to be made that Harden needs real, in-game rhythm, and resting him the final three games, and Joel up to two of those, won’t help their cause one bit.
But I would happily take the chance that a 14-year vet, starting to feel better, given some practice time that has simply not been there for the team lately, could hone his timing with the game’s best (when healthy) star big man.
The way I see it, if the three-time scoring champ is not healthy, this team has no shot at a title. If James is totally healthy, they’re live, even if it takes them a couple games to find rhythm vs. say Brooklyn in round one.
Too long, don’t read:
- try to gain momentum, confidence and lock up that MVP by beating Boston
- try to rest Harden the final three games, and Joel at least two of the final three after Boston
- while we’re at it, rest some other key guys where you see fit: Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker have certainly earned a day off.
This is all an extremely fine needle to try to thread, I understand. Winning games, securing trophies, persuading stars who want to play they shouldn’t....surely, Doc Rivers and his staff can strike the right balance.
This next battle vs. the Celtics feels like the most important, not terribly important game ever. Expect a high-intensity playoff atmosphere for Embiid and co.