Sixers finding cohesion at the right time
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that the Sixers limped into the 2019 NBA postseason.
Over the final two weeks of the regular season, All-Star center Joel Embiid spent more time on the sideline than out on the floor as he dealt with a lingering knee injury, and the team lost four of its last six games, in a very underwhelming fashion, despite the winnable nature of those contests. It was a far cry from the 17-game winning streak that the Sixers closed out the regular season and rode into the playoffs with last year.
Building fan frustration from that underwhelming end to the regular season spilled over into the first game of the postseason when the Sixers were thoroughly outplayed by the Brooklyn Nets on their home floor. Those in attendance at the Wells Fargo Center at that Game 1 responded to the Sixers' poor play by booing; a message that the Sixers heard loud and clear.
Since then, the Sixers have played seven more postseason games, and they have ranged from looking good – to dangerous – to downright dominant, and won six of them, with the lone exception coming in Game 1 of the semifinals in Toronto. They looked like the best version of themselves to date in Game 3 on Thursday night, as they controlled the court from the opening tip to the final whistle, and seized a 2-1 series lead over a Raptors team that was heavily favored entering the series, while appearing to scratch the surface of their lofty on-paper potential as a unit.
“I think chemistry is a bad word," Sixers forward Jimmy Butler said after the game. "Everybody wants to say that because we played together however many games or we didn't play together however many games. I think it's simple enough to know that whenever you have some good basketball players out there, the game happens. You make the right plays, you do what you're supposed to do with the basketball. That's all it is. The game is really, really simple. I think at times we, as players, decide to make it hard. But, if you're open, shoot it, if not, pass.”
Butler can downplay the idea of growing chemistry as a factor in the Sixers improving postseason play, but the Sixers entered the postseason with something that the other contenders in the East didn’t have: the potential to reach another level.
The other three contenders in the East – the Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, and Boston Celtics - enjoyed relative consistency over the course of the season. Aside from Toronto’s addition of Marc Gasol, those teams’ rotations are largely the same now as they were at the start of the season. The Sixers are the exact opposite, as the organization made not one, but two blockbuster trades over the course of the season that drastically altered the starting lineup and completely reshaped the rotation. Gone is Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Markelle Fultz and Wilson Chandler. In their place: Butler, Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, James Ennis, and Greg Monroe.
Thus, as a team Brett Brown and the Sixers didn’t have that same opportunity to grow consistency and familiarity within the rotation over the course of the regular season (and training camp, for that matter) that the other Eastern contenders did. Instead, we’ve seen that cohesion unfurl over the first round-and-a-half of the postseason.
Though Embiid agreed with Butler that “chemistry” is an overrated term when it comes to basketball, I don’t think you would find many that would disagree with the notion that teams tend to play better when their players are all accustomed to their teammates’ tendencies and are comfortable communicating with each other, especially in the postseason. Call it “increased familiarity” if you want.
That’s what we’re seeing happening with the Sixers. Having a top of talent helps too, as Embiid pointed out after Game 3.
“I still feel like we have so much potential," Embiid said. “Just like [Jimmy] said, chemistry is overrated. When you have great basketball players on the floor, it's easy. It's not that complicated. We're all willing passers. We're so unselfish. We understand that it's all about moving the ball. We don't want to ever get in situations where one guy has the ball and trying to create. We know that we got to move the ball.”
While Butler and Embiid shied away from it, Ben Simmons didn’t mind using the ‘C’ word when discussing the Sixers growth as a team (no, not that 'C' word).
“Everybody’s a threat,” Simmons said of the Sixers. “Our chemistry is building over time, it’s getting a lot better, and I think we’re at the point where we’re kind of figuring it out.”
Follow Michael Kaskey-Blomain on Twitter @therealmikekb.