PHOENIX — The 76ers are right there, yet so far away.
They’re in first place in the Eastern Conference standings, holding a percentage points edge over the Miami Heat. Ideally, one could think a team atop the standings is a serious contender. But some may look at that placing as a tad bit misleading, especially during this season.
In what has been a competitive campaign, the standings are jammed-packed as the third and fourth teams (the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks) are a ½-game behind the Heat and the Sixers.
So the Sixers (46-27) could easily slide to third place with a loss Sunday to the NBA-best Phoenix Suns at Footprint Arena. Even if the Sixers remain atop the standings, they don’t match up well with the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors, two potential first-round opponents.
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That’s why even though they’re right there, the Sixers still have a long way to go in their final nine regular-season games. They know it and they have said it.
“Our focus is getting better every single day,” Joel Embiid said. “Find ways to get better every single day, whether it’s offensively or defensively. We are not worried about the standings. We just want to get to a point where we know what we know we are doing at all times on the court, especially on the offensive side.”
That’s what the Sixers have been working on. That’s why coach Doc Rivers has been getting on his players about focusing on the details.
Things appeared lovely after beating the depleted Clippers, 122-97, Friday night at Crypto.com Arena. James Harden (29 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists) and Embiid (27 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks) looked every bit like a dominant and cohesive duo. It marked the Sixers’ fifth win in six games.
Yet, the excitement around this team could turn into skepticism if they lose their next two games, against the host Suns (60-14) and the Bucks on Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Bucks are in fourth place despite with 46-28 record after Saturday night loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Back-to-back losses could lead to critics to question the validity of the Sixers’ current three-game winning streak.
Critics will acknowledge they recorded a thrilling 113-106 victory over the Heat on March 21 without Harden and Embiid. But they’ll point out that Miami is a team in disarray.
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The Heat followed that setback with an ugly in-game confrontation with Jimmy Butler getting into it with coach Erik Spoelstra and former veteran Udonis Haslem during Wednesday’s 118-104 loss to the Golden State Warriors. Then Miami was outscored 38-15 in the fourth quarter of Friday night’s stunning 111-103 loss to the New York Knicks. And they suffered a 15-point loss to the Nets on Saturday.
So the Heat display all the signs of a frustrated and reeling team.
The Sixers’ trip to Los Angeles was spent defeating the undermanned and struggling Lakers and Clippers. They prevailed, 126-121, over a Lakers squad without LeBron James and Anthony Davis Wednesday night. Then the Sixers destroyed a Clippers squad without Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Norman Powell, among others, on Friday.
So it’s hard to classify the Sixers’ last two victories as quality wins, even as they were games the Sixers needed to win to stay in the hunt for the top spot in the East.
“We’re still not [there yet],” Rivers said. “But we’re still getting better. The want-to has to be their first. It is. The rest will follow.”
Rivers said he was unaware that the Sixers were that close to the Heat after Friday night’s convincing win.
“I wear to gosh, I thought we were two games out, three games,” Rivers said. “Honestly, I’m not even paying attention to that. Right now, I’m just focused on quality of play. And the better we get, that’s all we need.”
The Sixers, though, need to improve defensively, especially in transition. Rivers also knows their pace, spacing, and continuity have to improve offensively. While Harden was aggressive Friday night, he has to be consistent with that.
To their credit, the Sixers are rebounding better and their reserves have shown some improvement over the past three games. But can they sustain it?
“There are things we have to do better,” Rivers said. ” We have to be a better team defensively. We don’t have a ton of great individual defenders.”
Rivers has had teams that could do both. Those squads were wounded with four of five shutdown defenders.
“This is not that team,” he said. “So we really have to be a great team defensively in order to play defense.”
They’ll definitely need to shore up those things.
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If the regular season ended Saturday, the Sixers would most likely face the loser of the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Nets play-in game for the seventh seed.
But the Raptors are also a potential first-round opponent.
They and Brooklyn are very capable of handing the Sixers opening-round series loss.
The Sixers have had problems with Toronto’s length and flexibility. And Raptors coach Nick Nurse has a history of finding ways to neutralize Embiid. Meanwhile, they may have a tougher time stopping Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Plus, there’s that motivation factor with Brooklyn. They want to take it to Harden for forcing a trade to the Sixers on Feb. 10. Yet, at the same time, acquiring Seth Curry and Andre Drummond in the deal along with Ben Simmons and two first-round picks benefitted the Nets. Simmons has yet to play because of a back injury. But even without him, Curry and Drummond make Brooklyn a better team.
So at this time, the Sixers are better off getting the third seed, assuming Miami and Milwaukee finish first and second and Brooklyn and Toronto are in the play-in tournament.
That’s why the Sixers are right there, yet so far away.