Today, the Sixers sit atop the Eastern Conference at 43-21, winners of four straight.
The team holds a 0.5-game lead over second-seeded Brooklyn, but Philadelphia also possesses the all-important tiebreaker. If the Sixers and Nets finish the season with identical records, Philly gets the first overall seed in the East.
Tonight is the beginning of the end, the first of the team’s final eight scheduled games in this regular season. As you can see, it is an absolute sprint to game 72:
Tonight’s second game of the road back-to-back comes amidst a five games in seven nights span that, while not saturated with the stiffest competition, could prove especially taxing for a Sixers team in a battle for seeding.
Thus, the work is now on Sixers head coach Doc Rivers to gracefully balance the two conflicting goals of winning games and ensuring players remain healthy, and there isn’t a particularly easy answer.
Yesterday, Rivers publicly alluded to the plan the team has in place, telling reporters that he wouldn’t fall prey to irresponsible decision-making borne out of the temptation to keep one eye on Brooklyn in the standings.
We’ll find out just how much of that sentiment is coachspeak rather shortly. Take tonight, for instance. Following a game against a depleted San Antonio Spurs team that the Sixers sleepwalked through — only escaping with the win thanks to a Ben Simmons tip-in to beat the buzzer in overtime — the team immediately traveled to Chicago for tonight’s end of the road back-to-back. Prior to tipoff yesterday, many assumed it would be a game in which Rivers would be able to rest his key players for much of the second half. Alas, the Spurs fought hard and the Sixers never really “turned it on,” so to speak, and each starter logged at least 34 minutes.
Herein lies the conundrum. The Sixers must win a high percentage of the remaining eight games to hold onto the number one seed, yet if the Sixers suffer key injuries as a result of overplaying stars like Embiid, Simmons, or Harris, the one seed doesn’t do them much good anyway.
Should the Sixers maintain good health, the one seed is extremely vital to the team’s title hopes. As of today, the one seed would pit the Sixers against the Charlotte Hornets or Indiana Pacers in the first round, the New York Knicks or Atlanta Hawks in the second round, and then whichever team wins the likely heavyweight showdown between the Nets and Milwaukee Bucks in the Conference Finals. If Brooklyn passes Philadelphia in the standings at season’s end, the Sixers would probably need to go through the Boston Celtics, the Milwaukee Bucks and then the Nets. It’s a much more difficult path, and one that the Sixers are smart to avoid if at all possible.
So tonight, will Rivers rest any of his key starters? Joel Embiid is the most sensible option to take the night off against a Bulls team slated to be short All-Star Zach LaVine and potentially Nikola Vucevic, as well. The trouble, of course, is that the Sixers are always far more likely to win with Embiid on the court than off. The margin for error at this stage of the season is simply so small that the Sixers can’t afford to accept a schedule loss and move on. If Embiid sits, Simmons, Harris, and company need to pick up the slack more than ever to keep pace with Brooklyn in the standings.
Maybe Rivers can find the perfect balance. Maybe that balance represents the Sixers playing with a full squad throughout the rest of the year, but the head coach keeping the minutes low against the lesser teams on the schedule. Last week, the Sixers showed how this was done — blowing out Oklahoma City once and Atlanta twice, ensuring full fourth quarters of Philly’s end-of-the-bench guys playing in garbage time. As we saw last night, this is only possible if the starters assert themselves decisively on the teams they face. If they futz around and play half speed for the game’s first 30 minutes or so, they’ll need to play in crunch time, and consequently, risk injuries.
There isn’t a perfect answer. I’d love to hand the Sixers’ starters a sabbatical until round one of the playoffs and rest assured that BBall Paul and Rayjon Tucker will bludgeon teams in their stead and ward off the Nets in the process.
For a Sixers team smartly dead-set on winning the East’s top spot, the balance of winning with health over this final stretch of games could amount to the story of the season. Here’s hoping that the team can serve both masters in its pursuit of the NBA championship.