DETROIT — There’s some good news and bad news for the 76ers.
The good news is they have the NBA’s easiest remaining strength of schedule in regard to playoff seeding.
The bad news is their shortcomings were exposed in consecutive losses to the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, two of the league’s elite teams.
For the most part, the Sixers (46-29) are expected to dominate their remaining seven opponents, who had a combined winning percentage of .404 as of Wednesday afternoon. That, combined with tough schedules down the stretch for the Boston Celtics and Bucks (47-28), should elevate them in the standings.
The Sixers were in the third place in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the first-place Miami Heat with seven games left. They were a game behind the second-place Bucks and a percentage points ahead of the fourth-place Celtics (47-30).
But even if the Sixers climb the standings, they’ll still fall short of their championship aspirations unless their execution improves.
That, among other things, doomed them in what were barometer games against Milwaukee and Phoenix, last season’s NBA finalists.
The Sixers blew a 14-point lead en route to a 118-116 loss to the defending NBA champion Bucks on Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center. That came two days after blowing a 15-point lead in a 114-104 loss to the defending Western Conference champion Suns in Phoenix.
This is an unfortunate trend.
Their last four losses were against teams expected to clinch playoff spots -- Bucks, Suns, Toronto Raptors, and Denver Nuggets. The Sixers had a double-digit lead in each of those games.
But they followed the loss to the Raptors with last week’s three-game winning streak. They pulled off a five-point victory against the Heat (49-28) without Joel Embiid and James Harden. Then they won the first two contests of a three-game West Coast trip by beating the undermanned Lakers and Clippers in Los Angeles.
So there was some intrigue heading into the games against the Suns and Bucks. However, the Sixers couldn’t overcome their mistakes in those losses.
“Executing, we got to do a better job, against Phoenix and again tonight we had a lead just like against Phoenix,” Joel Embiid said Tuesday. “It’s a game of runs, every team is going to make their runs. So we just gotta stay calm and know what we need to do, and the last two games have really shown why those two teams have went to the finals.”
Those two games revealed the steps the Sixers must take to become a legitimate NBA title contender.
In both games, the Sixers were doomed by miscues in clutch situations while the Suns and Bucks elevated their play in similar situations.
Against the Bucks, the Sixers made stops until late in the third quarter when MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo took over the game. Unfortunately for the Sixers, he wasn’t alone in regard to stepping up his game.
The Bucks shot 72.2% in the final quarter with Antetokounmpo (12 points), Jrue Holiday (10 points), and Khris Middleton (nine points, five assists) combining to score 31 of their team’s 37 points.
“We had a couple mistakes defensively and they made us pay for it,” Harden said. “They hit three after three after three and off of our mistakes, nothing they did. We could’ve corrected things that we could control and they got 37 points in that fourth quarter. They finish things in the second half.”
Meanwhile, Embiid and Tobias Harris each had eight points in the final quarter. But Embiid committed a costly turnover on a bad pass with his team down two points with 2 minutes, 44 seconds remaining. Harris misfired on what appeared to be two rushed three-point attempts and was a minus-10 in the quarter.
Their performances down the stretch were better than those of Harden and Tyrese Maxey.
Harden finished with a team-high 32 points, but was held to three points on 1-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter. Maxey failed to score while shooting 0 for 3 in the final quarter. He also was a minus-10 during that time.
Harris agreed that execution and composure were the biggest problems in the two losses.
There were “two games that we believe that we should’ve won,” he said. “So we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and just figure out how we can sharpen our coverages defensively, our communication. That’s the biggest thing.
“Then offensively we just had some looks that didn’t fall for us and we know we can make those.”
That’s the bad news.
The good news is the Sixers start a favorable end-of-season stretch Thursday night at the struggling Detroit Pistons.
They follow that with a home game against the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday afternoon. Then the Sixers embark on a three-game road trip at the Cleveland Cavaliers (Sunday), Indiana Pacers (Tuesday), and Toronto Raptors (April 7). They end the season with back-to-back home games against the Pacers (April 9) and Pistons (April 10).
One can assume the Sixers will rest a few key players in several of those games.
But Detroit (20-56) and the Pacers (25-51) are among the league’s worst teams. Meanwhile, the Sixers have won their last 17 games against the Hornets (40-37). It’s the longest current winning streak by an NBA team against a particular opponent.
The Sixers won their two March games against the Cavs (42-34) by a combined 10 points. But they are only 1-2 against the Raptors (44-32).
Most of these games should be nothing more than a tune-up for the postseason. It’s up to the Sixers to make the proper adjustments once the playoffs get here.