In Wide-Open East Playoffs, Joel Embiid Could Make 76ers Sudden Favorites

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2018

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 14: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts from the bench against the Miami Heat during Game One of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff at Wells Fargo Center on April 14, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Joel Embiid
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

CAMDEN, N.J. — About 12 hours after helping the Philadelphia 76ers wipe the floor with the Miami Heat, Markelle Fultz stood before a group of reporters and shook his head. 

"It was kind of scary to see what we did without [Joel Embiid]," the rookie guard told the media on Sunday at the Sixers' training center. 

Philadelphia's first playoff game in six years went better than even the most optimistic Sixers fan could have hoped, a 130-103 blowout win over the Miami Heat. It was the Sixers' 17th straight victory and ninth in a row without Embiid, who's missed the past three weeks after suffering a concussion and orbital fracture in late March.

The Sixers have ruled Embiid out for Game 2. But they also announced that he's cleared the NBA's concussion protocol, meaning he could return any day. And given how vulnerable the Cleveland Cavaliers look—their defense has been atrocious all season; Sunday's ugly Game 1 home loss to the Pacers was just the latest example—and how well they match up with the Toronto Raptors, the Sixers could be primed to morph into the Eastern Conference favorites. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 14:  Markelle Fultz #20 and Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers exchange a hug after game one of round one of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat on April 14, 2018 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Much of this is going to sound like prisoner-of-the-moment hyperbole, so let's begin by getting the caveats out of the way.

First off, it's unlikely the quartet of JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli, Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova simultaneously catches fire like it did Saturday night. That foursome drained a ridiculous 15 of 23 shots from the three-point line and combined to score 90 points. Counting on a repeat of that output would be silly.  

Then there's everything we know about the playoffs, about how a seven-game series can be long and arduous and full of all sorts of ebbs and flows. Teams go up and down, run hot and cold.

As Redick put it Sunday while speaking to reporters after practice: "We protected our home court. Doc Rivers used to always say something along the lines of, 'A playoff series really doesn't start until someone gets a road win.' So all we've done is protect home court for one game."

Redick also acknowledged he expects the Heat to tweak their defense for Game 2. "They'll probably make an adjustment on how they guard Ben (Simmons)," he said. The Heat cycled a few smaller defenders onto Simmons, from Justise Winslow to Josh Richardson to Dwyane Wade, and shaded off of him, conceding the jump shot that Simmons never takes. Instead, as he's done all season, Simmons used that space to his advantage by driving downhill and leveraging that room into clear passing lanes.

Redick added that he anticipates Miami will "switch more off the ball with Marco and I," a tactic that could limit some of the Sixers' triples. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 14: JJ Redick #17 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts after a made three point basket against the Miami Heat during Game One of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff at Wells Fargo Center on April 14, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylv
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

All of which is to say it's hard to imagine Philadelphia putting up 130 points again, and as impressive as a 17-game winning streak is, it's important to note that 13 of those victories have come against lottery teams.

But look closely at the Sixers and you'll see a team boasting every trait a true contender needs. They finished the regular season with the league's third-best defense and fourth-best point differential. Their starting lineup of Embiid, Saric, Simmons, Redick and Robert Covington blitzed opponents to the tune of 21.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, the second-best mark in the league among all five-man lineups that shared the floor for at least 200 minutes.

The roster is loaded. Simmons is a magician at the point, a walking mismatch whom opponents have yet to figure out. Robert Covington is an elite defender whose Inspector Gadget-like arms helped him lead the league in deflections for the second consecutive season, per NBA.com. Redick, Belinelli, Saric and Ilyasova space the floor, which allows Embiid, and now Fultz, to thrive without launching jumpers.

It's no coincidence the Sixers went 20-3 to finish the regular season after adding Belinelli followed by Ilyasova in late February. 

And then there's Embiid, the team's 7-footer who's both unguardable on the block and boasts a feathery jumper. He also happens to be one of the NBA's top rim-protectors (opponents shot 7.5 percent worse at the rim with Embiid on the floor during the regular season, one of the NBA's top marks, per Cleaning the Glass).

As Fultz put it Sunday: "I just think we'd have a post presence that we could go to at any time, go get a bucket there. He also can space the floor just as well as anybody on our team and shoot the three-ball. So I just think it's going to make it more dynamic. I think guys are going to be open from his screens. He can get a lot of guys open.

Redick, too, was asked how Embiid's impending return could change the way the Sixers play.

"We'll play a little bit slower, we'll have a little more set plays to get him the ball in the post, but I don't think the philosophy changes all that much," he said. "Probably, when we are at our best is when we balance making sure he has touches in the post with that sort of flow action we played with for the last couple of games."

In other words, the hottest team in the league is about to become even more potent.

"It's not crazy to see them making the Finals," one league executive said. Especially when you look at their path. If they get past the Heat, they'll play either a depleted Celtics team or an underachieving Bucks squad. The Sixers would be heavy favorites over both, which would vaunt them into the Eastern Conference Finals against, likely, the Cavaliers or Raptors. And from there, who knows?

So not only does each victory push the clouded history of The Process further into the background, but each one also inches the Sixers closer toward genuine contention. Because right now, they look like so much more than a plucky upstart ready to—as they say—make some noise in the postseason. They look like an explosive group ready and able to bring an end to LeBron's Eastern Conference reign.

     

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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