Tuesday NBA Playoffs Takeaways: Joel Embiid Is Right That Sixers' 'Time Is Now'

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 25, 2018

Tuesday NBA Playoffs Takeaways: Joel Embiid Is Right That Sixers' 'Time Is Now'

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    The man-child in the made-to-measure, thermoplastic, carbon-fiber mask is right: The Philadelphia 76ers' time is now.

    Their time will also come later. They're that well-off—the proud owners of a youthful base, steeped in both budding and established sure things, with meaningful cap space on deck.

    But despite the persisting importance of patience and Process, the Sixers are not some happy-to-be-here fluke enjoying the fruits of an expectation-less postseason bid.

    "I think our time is now. ... We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don't think we need anybody else," Joel Embiid said Monday, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley. "We've just got to work with what we have. We have a special team, and I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far."

    Roll your eyes if you dare, but that would mirror the reaction many sported when he declared the Sixers were chasing a 50-win regular season. Those auto-responses ended up looking all kinds of foolish after they wrapped the year with 52 victories while closing the schedule on a 16-game win streak, half of which unfolded without Embiid.

    Doubting the Sixers—and, by extension, Embiid's unrestrained optimism—feels more pointless than ever. They became the second team this postseason to advance to the second round with their 104-91 victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday. And for everything still left to be written, it has become progressively harder to put a ceiling on these Sixers.

    Not next year's team. Or the 2019-20 squad.

    These. Exact. Sixers.

Philly Looks Ready to Ruin the East's Status Quo

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    Instead of looking at the Sixers' first-round victory as a feel-good blip, consider viewing them as an inevitable Eastern Conference Finals participant.

    It might feel weird. Actually, it will feel weird. They won 10 games in 2015-16 and 28 in 2016-17. Coming within four victories of the NBA Finals would constitute something more than a quantum-sized leap.

    For all the awkwardness, though, this exercise won't feel wrong. Philadelphia has earned the benefit of the doubt. 

    Taking down the Heat is only part of the Sixers' charm. This series didn't feel very Miami. Sixers coach Brett Brown might have out-chess-matched Heat head honcho Erik Spoelstra, one of the NBA's best strategists. 

    Miami's propensity for certain non-shooting lineups was bizarre. Spo seemed bent on making the combination of Dwyane Wade, Wayne Ellington, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo work. It didn't.

    Call it the curse of depth. The Heat aren't drowning in flamethrowing shooters, but they have so many capable players, the nightly grind of balancing momentum with longstanding returns is no joke. 

    Except, this doesn't qualify as a Miami loss. It goes down as a Sixers win. They dictated style and tempo, ripping the Heat out of their comfort zone. All four of their most-used lineups outscored Miami by more than 10 points per 100 possessions, and their bench enters Round 2 with the highest net rating in the league.

    No part of this appears unsustainable—not Ben Simmons' polish in a playoff setting, not Embiid's performance after spending weeks on the sidelines, not the second unit's heroics, nothing. Embiid and Simmons are playing like extensions of their regular-season selves, and the reserves have (mostly) been on the come-up since the post-trade-deadline additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.

    If anything, the Sixers have yet to impart their full wrath upon the postseason. Their starting five is a plus-10.6 points per 100 possessions through 27 minutes of action—almost a 10-point drop from their regular-season mark (plus-21.4

    Robert Covington will shoot better. Dario Saric will, too. Embiid should commit fewer turnovers as he becomes more accustomed to playing with a prosthetic face.

    These Sixers have both yet to wilt in the moment and hardly broached their peak. Giving them a clear path to max cap space over summer is unfair. They're next in line for the Eastern Conference throne without doing a damn thing. Add a star or a plain-old impact free agent or two, and forget it.

    But that's getting ahead of the game. The Sixers' season isn't over yet. They're in the second round, where they'll face the wildly underachieving Milwaukee Bucks or the Kyrie Irving- and Gordon Hayward-less Boston Celtics. Make it past either of them, and they'll see the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors or Washington Wizards in the conference finals—not one of which would be a lock to beat these Sixers four times in seven tries.

    They may not deserve to be crowned Eastern Conference favorites, but this idea that they could reach the conference finals, or even the NBA Finals, can no longer be attributed to heat-of-the-moment hyperbole.

    The Sixers are for real. And, fittingly, so are their chances of emerging from the East.

Miami Has Some Introspection to Undergo

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    Well, the Heat did what they failed to do in 2016-17: secure a playoff berth. But that doesn't come as much of a comfort.

    They didn't reinvest in last season's nucleus to end the year with a first-round exit. That 30-11 hot streak was supposed to portend something special, even amid a letdown.  

    Bowing out to the Sixers in five games does nothing to indicate the Heat are headed in the right direction. They will scoot past next season's $123 million luxury-tax line if they opt to float Wayne Ellington's $8.2 million cap hold. Owner Micky Arison flinched at paying into the pork barrel during the Big Three era. He'll likely have a thing or 50 to say about journeying into the tax for a core with the apex of a No. 5 seed.

    Shedding salary is always an option, but that won't aid the Heat's on-court cause. Their highest-paid player, Hassan Whiteside, is unhappy and virtually untradable on his own with two years and $52.5 million remaining on his deal. Even if they find a taker, they won't nab value in return for his services.

    Tyler Johnson's poison pill kicks in next season (two years, $38.5 million), so he's likely immovable as well. Ditto for Dion Waiters (three years, $36.3 million), who is working his way back from ankle surgery that limited him to just 30 appearances.

    James Johnson (three years, $46.1 million) and Kelly Olynyk (three years, $35 million) would have their suitors, but neither is a blockbuster anchor. Goran Dragic (two years, $37.3 million) and Josh Richardson (four years, $42 million) are tasty chips, but the Heat won't find a scenario in which flipping either of them improves their outlook.

    Bam Adebayo and Rodney McGruder won't net Miami much without being attached to larger salaries. Trading Justise Winslow is disingenuous to the future and, in all likelihood, doesn't move the needle with him ticketed for restricted free agency in 2019.

    And on top of everything, the Heat's reunion with Dwyane Wade could prove to be short-lived if he opts for retirement.

    All in all, they feel stuck. They need to make upgrades, but they don't have the resources to do so. Short of team president Pat Riley pulling a rabbit out of his industrial-sized hair-gel tub, the Heat will enter next season looking almost exactly the same, minus the palpable hope of a better ending.

Is This It for Manu and the Spurs as We Know Them?

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    I stand with Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

    "If you love it, keep going," he told Manu Ginobili, his former teammate, on TNT following his team's 99-91 Game 5 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. "What the hell?"

    What the hell, Manu? You remain a human water wiggly on the basketball court. Keep going.

    Irrationality might be winning out here. Ginobili turns 41 in July and is 16 years into his career. He's been approaching the end for what seems like forever. Should he really hold on? When the Spurs themselves are approaching a crossroads at breakneck speed?

    No one quite knows what will happen with Kawhi Leonard over the summer. He hasn't played since Jan. 13 while dealing with a right quad injury, during which time Ginobili, Tony Parker and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich have all addressed his absence with a certain thinly veiled disdain.

    Leonard's name will spend the offseason meandering in and out of trade rumors—unless the Spurs strike early. He's eligible to sign a designated player extension until the books reset. If they don't offer him one, he'll need to re-qualify for it next season. That could hasten a trade request and/or his eventual exit. 

    Even if Leonard and the Spurs work it out, the ledger is simultaneously stockpiled with potential free agents and little flexibility. Rudy Gay, Danny Green and Joffrey Lauvergne all hold player options. Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes are gearing up for restricted free agency. Tony Parker's contract is expiring. Brandon Paul's 2018-19 salary is non-guaranteed. Ginobili might retire.

    This Spurs team could look drastically different by the time next season rolls around, depending on how they approach the summer. They may have the means to chisel out some flexibility beyond the mid-level exception, but it'll entail some collateral damage—most notably Green's potential departure or a Patty Mills trade. They could sit tight and run it back with a (hopefully) healthy Leonard. They could look to move their two time Defensive Player of the Year for spare parts who complement LaMarcus Aldridge (i.e. shooters). They could even consider starting over.

    Whether Ginobili figures into any of these scenarios is up to him. The Spurs would welcome him back even if they steer into an unlikely rebuild. And if you're a storybook-type, it just feels like he'll return.

    Something about Ginobili ending his career after a game in which Pop couldn't coach and Leonard was binge-watching Liam Neeson movies in a New York hotel suite doesn't sit right.

Semi Ojeleye = Hero

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    Boston Celtics rookie Semi Ojeleye entered Tuesday night with zero career starts under his belt. 

    Then came Game 5.

    Celtics head coach Brad Stevens inserted Ojeleye into the starting lineup for Aron Baynes and immediately had him going toe-to-toe with Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was one of those surreal postseason experiences—the kind typically reserved for an 11th-hour Gerald Green infusion. 

    Yes, Ojeleye was the only member of the Celtics to finish the team's Game 5 victory over the Milwuakee Bucks as a net minus. And yes, he remains a relative non-factor on offense. He shot 1-of-3 from the floor (all threes) while receiving the biohazard treatment from Bucks defenders.

    But chasing around Antetokounmpo for much of the game isn't easy. Nor is logging your first career start as a rookie in a pivotal playoff game. Ojeleye totaled more minutes than either Jayson Tatum or Marcus Morris, was integral in Boston's drubbing of Milwaukee on the glass and helped limit Antetokounmpo to 10 shots with a mix of fouls, double-teams and general in-your-faceness that coaxed the ball from his hands.

    "Semi Ojeleye is like if The Rock and Vin Diesel had a baby and it was good at basketball," Yahoo Sports' Ben Rohrbach wrote after the Celtics' 92-87 victory. "This has been the plot to FastTen Your Seatbelts."

    If Ojeleye ever consistently hits his standstill threes, the Celtics will have one helluva NBA player on their hands.

    As it stands, he already looks like someone who, if given the playing time, will invariably receive some All-Defensive team love down the line.

Khris Middleton Is Playing His Way into 'Lopsided Celtics Trade Ideas' Twitter

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    Is Khris Middleton the most underrated player in the NBA?

    This reads like a loaded (if not drunken) question on the heels of a 9-of-21, two-assist effort in a loss. But Middleton, whether by design, necessity or accident, became the Bucks' most consistent source of scoring in Game 5.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo ended up taking just 10 shots—a qualm for another day. Jabari Parker pumped in 17 points with some obscure flexing on the offensive glass, but he fell short on more than a few of his three-point attempts (2-of-7). Shabazz Muhammad was living his best life, jacking nine shots in less than 10 minutes of action, but he's Shabazz Muhammad. Eric Bledsoe's "Disappoint Everyone Over and Over" tour is going strong.

    Middleton needed to launch some ridiculously tough fadeaways. His mid-range and post games are both maddening and enthralling. He should be taking higher-quality shots, but he hits so many of the ugly, drawn-out ones that it doesn't matter. He was the only Bucks player—aside from Muhammad—to close Game 5 as a net plus.

    Middleton looks the part of an alpha scorer these days. He's averaging more shot attempts (17.2) against Boston than Antetokounmpo (16.2) while downing 57 percent of his overall looks and 60 percent of his treys. 

    Milwaukee's offense has cratered by 21 points per 100 possessions when Middleton catches a breather—the largest on-off differential on the team among players who have tallied at least 15 total minutes in the series. 

    This is supposed to be one of Middleton's biggest knocks. He isn't a focal point, bail-out scorer or offensive hub. He's more complementary than featured.

    In this series, though, Middleton has been both. And while the Bucks find themselves facing elimination, they'd already be long gone if not for his attack-mode activation.

Meek Mill, Ahem, Rings in the Sixers' Dynasty

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    Mere hours following his release from prison after the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overruled Judge Genece Brinkley's decision to withhold bail, Meek Mill made it to the Wells Fargo Center in time to ring the Philadelphia 76ers' ceremonial bell before the start of Game 5.

    His trip to the arena obviously included a helicopter.

    And he was naturally donning a Joel Embiid jersey.

    Congratulations to the Sixers players, executives, ownership, fans and anyone else associated with the team.

    Your dynasty can officially begin.

Utah Catches a Break Ahead of Game 5, In a Way You Wouldn't Think

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    The NBA elected to fine Russell Westbrook $10,000 for his Game 4 kerfuffle with Rudy Gobert, per Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania. He will not, contrary to initial consideration, be suspended for Wednesday's Game 5.

    Which means the Utah Jazz can breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

    Oh, what, you think that's a typo? It isn't.

    Westbrook owns the Oklahoma City Thunder's worst net-rating differential for the series. Their performance worsens by more than 26 points per 100 possessions with him in the game.

    OK, OK, OK. Snark time's over. Westbrook is a fantastic, albeit flawed, singular talent, and the Thunder don't have a chance in h-e-double-hockey-sticks of erasing their 3-1 series deficit without him being his best self.

    Too bad he's been anything but so far.

    Westbrook is averaging 21.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists while shooting 36.7 percent from the floor, with a 21.4 percent clip on three-pointers. He has not made a concerted effort to get back on defense for most of the series, and he's posting the highest postseason turnover rate of his career.

    Oklahoma City needs him to be better—more efficient, mostly—in Game 5, or else there won't be a Game 6.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Wednesday. Salary and cap hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.