Here’s a number: 50. It’s half of 100 and just over 60 percent of 82—the total number of games in an NBA season. For the 76ers, that number now means validation. After beating the Mavericks on Sunday, Philly has 50 wins in a season for the first time in 17 years.
The 2017-18 Sixers didn’t need a round number to command respect. After Philly spent years as the league’s laughingstock, any winning record would do. But, now, the Sixers have won more games than they did over the past two seasons combined. The milestones are important, sure, but they’re no less impressive than simply taking in a Sixers performance these days. With the playoffs less than a week away, they look unstoppable.
Here’s another number: 14. That’s how many games the Sixers have won in a row, the last six without Joel Embiid in the lineup. Philly’s defense has been impenetrable and its offense has only grown stronger: Six of their 11 highest-scoring games have come in the last month. Philly isn’t just good. They already have the luxury of maintaining a level of performance even without their franchise jewel. That’s where Ben Simmons comes in.
Simmons is unguardable, a back-to-the-basket point guard in an age when the back-to-the-basket big men have gone extinct. He doesn’t have a reliable shot, but give him space and he’ll survey the floor to find the perfect pass, sprint by you on his way to the rim, or back you down until he’s in control. He’s averaged 14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.9 assists, and two steals per game, and shot 61.1 percent from the field during the streak. Watching him control and affect the game from end to end, you tend to forget he’s only 21 years old.
“Who would I pick?” Simmons responded to a question about the Rookie of the Year in an ESPN interview Saturday. “Me, 100 percent.” And when asked about other rookies that have caught his eye, there was no Donovan Mitchell mention. “None.” Of course, Mitchell responded:
On Friday night against the Cavaliers, Philly played not like an underdog, but a favorite. And Simmons welcomed LeBron, his mentor, to Philly by putting together a highlight reel.
The game felt like more than a passing of the torch, or even a walking billboard petitioning LeBron to come to Philly. It was a defiant challenge that brought the best out of the best. Simmons pushed the right buttons, forcing and LeBron to give his all in a 44-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist performance. It was the ultimate sign of mutual respect.
It’s fair to wonder how much this regular season means in the way of long-term success for Philly. The regular season has been a success, an unignorable coming-out party. But the playoffs will give the Sixers a chance to solidify their legitimacy.
Embiid’s health will be paramount, as will Simmons’s continued ability to score without a shot, but what this current streak has shown is that the Sixers are bolstered by more than just their superstars. By adding Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in the buyout market, Philly has deepened its bench. J.J. Redick has been shooting 46.2 percent from 3 since the beginning of March, and Markelle Fultz, whose per-36 numbers are promising, has shown that he could be useful for the team this season.
Studies have shown that teams with strong defensive efficiency in the regular season tend to do well in the playoffs. This season, the Sixers have had the third-best defensive rating (102.2) in the league. Over the winning streak, Philadelphia has been an elite team on both ends of the floor; the Sixers have been the best defensive team in the league during this 14-game stretch, allowing only 98.2 points per 100 possessions, and the fourth-best offensive team in the league, scoring 112.6 points per 100 possessions. That all adds up to a league-high 14.3 net rating. Plus, their shooting has only improved. Their 55.3 effective-field goal percentage during this stretch is third-best in the NBA, (a small jump from their eighth-best 53 percent before the streak began) another statistic that has been correlated to postseason success in the past.
This streak has undoubtedly raised expectations for the Sixers. The postseason may be a rude awakening, an exposure of their youth and inexperience, but also a coming of age that all great teams have experienced before reaching the mountaintop. What this final stretch has proved is that the Sixers can be more than just a tough matchup once the playoffs begin. In a wide-open East, they have all the makings of a true Finals contender.