The Celtics were in town, and the fourth quarter was about to begin, and the scoreboard said that it was anybody’s ballgame, and standing on the court were Furkan Korkmaz, Trey Burke, and Norvel Pelle. Given the context clues, you can probably surmise that reality’s fickle course has deviated from the Sixers’ blueprint in a manner that is less than ideal. This was January, mind you. Three months earlier, we had been wondering whether this might be the deepest, most talented incarnation of this team since the 1980s. On Thursday night, we were wondering if Korkmaz could guard Jaylen Brown.
In the midst of all of this, a funny thing happened. Instead of playing like the team we have so often seen the Sixers be when forced to inhabit a basketball court without Joel Embiid, they put together a performance that suggested they did not feel all that lost without him. In fact, on more than a handful of occasions, they looked a lot like the offense we’d spent much of the first three months of this 2019-20 season waiting for them to be.
There was Al Horford, facing up a defender on the baseline with two minutes left and jab-stepping a couple of times to create all the space he’d need for a mid-range jumper that all but sealed the win. There was Josh Richardson, exploding to the rim off the dribble through a wide-open paint and throwing down a scintillating one-handed jam. There was Tobias Harris, going to work from the top of the key, shimmying and slithering to an open spot for a pull-up that splashed soft through the rim.
The end result was a 109-98 win that once again left us to question all of the conventional wisdom that we thought we’d settled upon with regard to this team. The Sixers are now 25-14, on pace to finish the regular season with 52 wins after a summer in which they’d talked as if 60 was realistic possibility. They like to say that this roster is built more for April and May than November and December, and while there is a legitimate rationale underlying that sentiment, it is a fact of life that the path a team must travel in the spring is dictated by its performance during the winter months. If the playoffs started today, they’d open them in Toronto against the Raptors and then travel to Milwaukee to face the top-seeded Bucks. This, just to get to the conference finals.
Yet they are now 3-0 against the Celtics, and a convincing 3-0 at that. They’ve split with the Raptors and the Pacers, and they’ve won their only game against the Bucks. All told, they are 7-4 against the five teams who join them among the top six teams in the East.
“We talked about, and I never go here, this was a close out game,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “You can go up 3-0 on Boston, you don’t know where that may be able to be cashed in at some point, if at all. In our eyes, in January, this was kind of a unique game.”
Things won’t get any less murky over the next month. The Sixers will be without Embiid for at least a couple of weeks, and likely somewhere more in the neighborhood of six to eight, judging by the case histories of NBA players who have previously torn ligaments in their non-shooting hands. Whether they can survive without him still feels like less of a question than whether they will be ever be able to reach their offensive potential when he is sharing the floor with Horford and Ben Simmons. In Thursday night’s win, both looked as comfortable as they have all season, combining for 36 points on 16-of-26 shooting within an offense that, particularly in the third quarter, hummed with an impressive rhythm.
“For us, it was a big game,” Horford said. “It almost felt like a must-win. We’ve laid some eggs recently in a few weeks here. We just needed to get this win. It felt good to beat a good team.”
Not even the most ardent of skeptics would suggest that the Sixers are a more explosive team without Embiid. But in the first game of what figures to be an extended stretch without him, it was difficult not to notice how much more effective Horford was in his more natural role compared with how he has looked while playing next to Embiid.
The exclamation point came with about a minute remaining, as Kemba Walker drove to the rim and was soundly rejected by Horford, whose block bounded toward midcourt, where it was picked up by Richardson and then gently dunked through the rim.