It may be ahead of the schedule, but the Philadelphia 76ers have already arrived as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
The hottest team in the league right now, the 76ers have reeled off 13 consecutive wins and their most recent victory, a 132-30 defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, vaulted them into the third seed and continued to prove they’re very much for real.
Even without Joel Embiid, who is recovering from a concussion and orbital fracture, Philadelphia managed to fend off a furious Cavaliers comeback after holding a 30-point lead in the first half.
LeBron James ended up with the glossier stat line as he racked up 44 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, but it was Ben Simmons who got the last laugh as he produced a triple-double of his own with 27 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists.
“This was big, beating a team like that without an All-Star,” said Simmons, referring to Embiid. “I think everyone is coming together as a team. We are playing well.”
James, who has been a mentor to Simmons and whose agent also represents the rookie, was complimentary about the 21-year-old phenom.
“He’s a student of the game,” James said. “Obviously I know that probably more than you guys have been around him. He’s a student of the game, he wants to be great.”
Before beating the Cavaliers, the 76ers’ win streak included victories against mostly bad competition and only team currently in position to reach the playoffs.
But by defeating Cleveland, Philadelphia showed their hot finish to the season is no fluke and that they’re primed for the playoffs, especially if they meet the Cavaliers again in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“The confidence in this team and how we’re playing overall as a unit, we haven’t had that around here in a long time,” 76ers forward Robert Covington said. “And it’s only going to get better from here.”
Even though Embiid is expected to return early in the playoffs, Philadelphia have incentive to keep hold of the three seed to set themselves up for the best path in the postseason.
They’re currently slated to play scrappy Miami in the first round, but round two is where seeding would prove useful as they could potentially face injury-ravaged Boston instead of East-leading Toronto.
The 76ers have a relatively easy close to the season with games remaining against Dallas, Atlanta and Milwaukee. If they win out, they would secure the third season. If they end with the same record as the Cavaliers, Cleveland would win the tiebreaker based on winning the Central division, while the 76ers are third in the Atlantic.
Five minutes into the NBA season, all of the Boston Celtics’ short-term plans and hopes went out the window with one awkward landing.
As Gordon Hayward’s leg broke, so did the Celtics’ chances of being a legitimate title contender. And yet they still found a way to be one of the best teams in the league – a testament to their depth, coaching and playing style.
Which is why the true kill shot to Boston’s season didn’t come until news dropped on Thursday that Kyrie Irving will require a second knee surgery which will keep him out for months.
The initial surgery, described by the team as “minimally invasive”, removed a tension wire from Irving’s left knee that was causing discomfort, but also detected a bacterial infection where two screws were inserted in 2015 to repair a fractured kneecap.
The good news is Irving is expected to make a full recovery in four to five months. The bad news? He won’t be back for the playoffs, meaning there won’t be any reinforcements on the way for a rag-tag Celtics team that has been finding ways to win with mostly role players and young guys.
It’s a depressing thought for a fanbase that was even hoping to get Hayward back at some point this season. Instead, the two stars that inspired so much excitement and hope last summer, will both be watching from afar when Boston do battle in the playoffs.
In many ways, it’s been a lost year for the franchise. But in the bigger picture, their outlook has barely changed.
Who knows what this team, which has won 53 games and boasts the league’s best defence despite dealing with injury after injury, could have done at full strength. However, it was always going to be a challenge for this year to be ‘the year’ because of their youth and lack of experience playing together.
The window to compete for a title was always expected to open in 2018-19. And assuming Hayward and Irving return to full health, nothing has changed from that standpoint.
If anything, there’s even more reason to believe the Celtics will be in a strong position beginning next season. If they can be this good without their best players, what level will they reach when they have all their talent at their disposal?
At 21 and 20, respectively, Brown and Tatum have already shown promise and improvement as players who could one day be All-Stars. With Hayward out, the responsibility that was supposed to be on the star forward’s shoulders has instead fallen to the pair of number three overall draft picks – and they have often thrived.
That experience, which will be even more valuable when earned on the playoff stage, should strengthen Boston going forward and make them an even deeper team than could have been imagined.
As far as these playoffs, the ceiling of reaching the Finals may be gone, but the floor remains as they’ll be favoured in the first round and have home court advantage in round two.
Recalibrating expectations is not what the Celtics thought they would be doing this season, but they can take solace in knowing it will only be a tough pill to swallow for the here and now.
After missing nine games due to chest pains, the head coach was back at the helm as the Cavaliers overcome a 16-point deficit with 6:06 remaining in the contest to defeat the Washington Wizards 119-115 on Thursday.
Lue admitted to being “rusty”, but received help from LeBron James who scored 13 of his 33 points over the final six minutes to pull out the improbable victory.
“I told the guys after the game, ‘Good job of bailing me out,'” Lue said. “It was tough. First game back and not having a point guard and not knowing what sets to call and what to run because you haven’t worked on it. …Just on the fly, it was tough. And those guys did a good job of scoring 119 points with no point guard and just sticking with it. Our rotations were a little off tonight so, I mean, I was rusty.”
.@cavs trailed by 16 points in final 6 minutes, the largest comeback in final 6 minutes in LeBron James' career (his teams were 0-152 all-time trailing by 15+ points in final 6 minutes). https://t.co/bYdOAIGVn5— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 6, 2018
Fortunately for Lue, he returns to a red-hot team that have now won 10 of their last 11 games to remain third in the Eastern Conference, with the Philadelphia 76ers in pursuit having won 12 in a row themselves.
Heading into the playoffs, Cleveland will continue starting Jeff Green to prioritise flexibility, according to Lue.
Rather than going with a traditional centre in Larry Nance Jr or Tristan Thompson, Lue believes with Green on the court, the Cavaliers can get maximum offensive spacing while having another wing defender alongside James.
“I just like his versatility, I think defensive wise we can put him on [DeMar] DeRozan, you can put him on John Wall, Bradley Beal. You can put him on [Victor] Oladipo,” Lue said before facing the Wizards.
“I just like that we can switch a lot of 1 through 4 stuff and it gives us another ball handler on the floor too, so I just think it’s the right thing for us to start.”