DALLAS — So just how good are the 76ers?
Are they really legitimate NBA championship contenders? Or would they struggle mightily in a possible second-round playoff series with the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks?
It’s actually hard to gauge just how good they are.
Sure, the Sixers and Nets are tied for first place at 36-17 in the Eastern Conference with 19 regular-season games remaining. The Bucks (32-20) are three games back in third place.
The Sixers’ signature win was a 131-123 overtime victory over Utah at the Wells Fargo Center on March 3. On that night, Joel Embiid had 40 points, 19 rebounds, and two blocks vs. the Jazz, who boast the league’s best record at 40-13. In a rarity for this season, both teams played with all their key players.
But like most teams, the Sixers have been dealing with injuries and players sidelined due to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The game against the Jazz and their 107-106 victory of the Los Angeles Lakers in January are the Sixers’ only contests against legitimate contenders where both teams had their full allotment of key players.
Two contests, obviously, isn’t a big enough sample size to prove that a Sixers team with some holes is capable of winning it all.
For the most part, the Sixers lost to contending teams on nights Embiid was sidelined. That’s what happened in their first matchup against Utah and during contests against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, and Denver Nuggets.
But the Sixers have also taken advantage of facing elite undermanned squads. On Feb. 6, the Sixers beat the Nets, who were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, two members of the team’s Big Three.
“After the game, you kind of feel like, great win,” Embiid said. “But like we didn’t play against their best. So you want to go out every single night and try to play against the best.
“You know, with COVID and the way the season has gone, everybody is missing games. COVID has affected the whole league.”
The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are two other notable teams the Sixers defeated who were missing elite players.
Embiid finished with game highs of 45 points, 16 rebounds, and five steals as the Sixers posted a 137-134 OT victory over the Heat on Jan. 12.
That night, the Sixers had five players — Seth Curry, Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, and Vincent Poirier — sidelined due to protocols for the third consecutive game. Furkan Korkmaz was also sidelined with a left adductor strain.
The Heat were without their best players in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, in addition to six other players due to protocols. Another player, Meyers Leonard, was sidelined with a strained left shoulder.
Two nights later, Harris, Milton, and Thybulle rejoined the Sixers in a 125-108 rout of the Heat. Butler, Adebayo, and the other seven players, including Leonard, were still sidelined.
The Sixers capped a season sweep of the Celtics with a 106-95 victory at TD Garden on Tuesday. It marked the first time they swept their archrivals in the regular season since the 2000-01 season. However, Boston missed key players due to injuries and COVID in all three games. All-Star Jayson Tatum, the Celtics best player, missed the first two contest with COVID-19.
“I mean, I don’t think you see any teams other than Utah, that might be it, with a full complement of players for a long extended period of time,” Curry said. “ ... The good thing is we have veteran guys, who have been to the playoffs and know what they bring to the table.
“And we’re a confident bunch that we can match up with anybody in the league, even if we haven’t seen it yet.”
Curry noted teams playing undermanned is just a part of this NBA season due to the pandemic and rigorous scheduling.
“Everyone is banged up,” he said. “Everyone is going through things.”
The Sixers face the Dallas Mavericks on Monday at American Airlines Center. George Hill (right thumb rehabilitation) will miss his 10th straight game as a Sixers since being acquired via a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 25. So he has yet to mesh on the court with his new teammates.
The Sixers’ next two games are at home against the Nets (Wednesday) and the Clippers (Friday). Los Angeles is the Western Conference’s third-best team.
Kawhi Leonard paced the Clippers with 28 points in a 122-112 victory over the Embiid-less Sixers on March 27. Leonard was one of five double-digit scorers for the Clippers, who made 52.9% of their shots, including 42.3% on three-pointers.
In regards to Brooklyn, James Harden is the third member of the Big Three. He joined the team via a trade from the Houston Rockets on Jan. 13.
Brooklyn also added Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge in the buyout market. As a result, the Nets have six players, in Durant, Irving, Harden, Griffin, Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan, with multiple All-NBA selections.
Aldridge (illness), Harden (right hamstring strain), Irving (personal reasons), and reserve Tyler Johnson (right knee soreness) are all ruled out of Brooklyn’s Monday night game at the last-place Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Nets have been cautious with injuries and have rested players all season for what is expected to be a long postseason run. Brooklyn has played only seven games where Irving, Harden, and Durant were all available.
On paper, the Nets have too much firepower for a Sixers team that is marred with inconsistency. However, Brooklyn has defensive shortcomings and no one to match up against Embiid.
“It’s hard to kind of figure it out when the team is at their best, but you can kind of tell,” Embiid said of comparing teams during a pandemic and injury-riddled season. “Obviously, you want to play against the best. We got a few games coming up against some great teams.
“So, hopefully, everybody is available because it also helps us. You can kind of see where you are, how good you actually are. So it’s going to be exciting. I hope that everybody’s healthy and everybody goes to the playoffs healthy, too.”