Observations from Sixers’ Win to Clinch No. 1 Seed
The third time is a charm.
After failing to seal the deal their last two games, the Sixers crushed the lowly Magic, 122-97, Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center to clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s the first time the Sixers have done so since Allen Iverson and company earned the top spot back in 2000-01.
The win improves the Sixers to 48-23 and assures them homecourt advantage throughout the postseason.
Here are observations from the blowout.
The Process of an MVP Candidate
Though it appears Nuggets center Nikola Jokic will take the award home, Joel Embiid has had an MVP-caliber season. Embiid had 13 points and eight rebounds in the first half, helping the Sixers build a 23-point halftime lead.
Embiid heard MVP chants from his first trip to the free throw line from the limited fans in attendance – and those chants were well deserved. Embiid will likely finish with the highest scoring average by a center since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000-01. He’d be the first Sixer to average at least 28 points since Iverson averaged 31.2 points in 2006-07.
It will easily go down as the most efficient regular season in Embiid’s young career. He’s likely to finish with his highest field goal, three-point and free throw percentages. If Embiid’s percentages hold, he and Tobias Harris will be the only players in franchise history to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 85 percent from the line (minimum 50 games).
As the Sixers continued to build their lead in the second half, Embiid picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench. It wasn’t a typical Embiid performance, but after the season he’s had, he earned an early night off.
While he acknowledged there's plenty of more work to be done, Embiid did take a moment to appreciate how far the organization has come from the days of The Process.
“It starts when the Sixers finished 10-72,” Embiid said. “From that time, we’ve only improved. … This year I just feel like everything was fitting from the owners, the coaches, the front office to the players – I just felt like everybody was on the same page. That’s why we were able to have such a good regular season.
“But at the end of the day, you’ve got to go out and prove why you were the No. 1 seed. You got to go into the playoffs, beat these teams and win the whole thing.”
Embiid even dropped a "Trust the Process" and shouted out former executive Sam Hinkie as his availability concluded.
Heading into the postseason, two of the Sixers’ bigger question marks will be Ben Simmons and Seth Curry.
Simmons has had a season deserving of Defensive Player of the Year consideration and will be a huge part of what the Sixers do on that end. But what will his role look like offensively? Doc Rivers has called him his “facilitator” all year long and Simmons was just that Friday night with nine assists and zero turnovers. Simmons also added 13 points.
Curry has been a fairly big barometer for the Sixers’ offense. When he’s playing well – and aggressively – the rest of the offense seems to flow a lot better. He was excellent Friday, scoring a team-high 20 points and going 4 of 5 from three.
The duo has shown some chemistry, combining on pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. Both players will play a huge part in providing offense when teams focus on Embiid and Harris.
“It’s what makes us good when [Simmons and Curry are] playing that way,” Doc Rivers said postgame. “When Ben is aggressive, Seth is aggressive, the ball is moving, we’re a good basketball team. When we don’t move the ball, we become stagnant, we’re not great offensively. We have to be that for us to be good in the playoffs.”
The Bench? The Bench
Perhaps the biggest question for the Sixers: How will Doc Rivers use his bench?
On Friday, two of the players that appear to be locks for playoff minutes, Matisse Thybulle (left hand soreness) and Dwight Howard (suspension), were out. Thybulle’s absence cleared a path for more minutes for rookie Tyrese Maxey.
Maxey continued his strong play with eight points, six assists and five rebounds. What’s undeniable is that Maxey provides something nobody else on the team does with his speed, quickness and ability to get to the rim. Is that enough for the 20-year-old to get into the playoff rotation? He’ll likely be on the outside looking in, but don’t be surprised if Rivers gives him an opportunity.
It was a solid night for Shake Milton (15 points) and Furkan Korkmaz (10 points), who appear to be on the fringes of the rotation. Milton provides some shot creation and outside shooting off the bench, but will he share the backcourt with veteran George Hill come playoff time? Korkmaz’s outside shooting has been big at times, especially when teams go zone. Where does he fall in the bench hierarchy?
It’s also fair to wonder what Rivers will do if there’s a problematic matchup for Howard. Does he use Mike Scott like he did Friday, or does he go to Simmons and perhaps go small with Maxey or Korkmaz?
What there is no questioning is that Rivers will have more options than Brett Brown had in seasons past. A large part of that is the work the front office did in acquiring veteran depth like Howard and Danny Green, who both brought championship experience to a young team.
“[Green] set the tone as soon as he came in day one,” Simmons said. “And also having Dwight there too. He’s been close to winning championships prior to going to the Lakers last year, so he really knows what it takes.
“Everyone’s got to make sacrifices and everyone’s doing that I believe right now. We got to put it all together and make this run.”