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Sunday’s game with Raptors starts a pivotal stretch for Sixers | Keith Pompey

Thirteen of the Sixers' next 18 games are against teams with winning records. Ten of those games are against teams ranked in the top five in the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Joel Embiid (right), Mike Scott (1), and the 76ers have a disappointing 5-7 road record this season. They have lost seven of their last nine road games.
Joel Embiid (right), Mike Scott (1), and the 76ers have a disappointing 5-7 road record this season. They have lost seven of their last nine road games.Read moreToni L. Sandys

The 76ers are underachieving.

There’s no other way to describe the play of a preseason favorite to reach the NBA Finals.

Folks will point out the starting lineup of Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Ben Simmons has played together in only nine of the 23 games. Heck, Richardson (right hamstring tightness) and Embiid (bruised left hip) didn’t play Saturday night’s 141-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers are 16-7 record and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They’re .018 percentage points out of fourth-place behind the Toronto Raptors, whom they will host Sunday night.

Based on all the preseason hype, the Sixers were expected to be battling the Milwaukee Bucks for the conference’s top stop - not be four games behind Milwaukee (20-3).

Yet, perhaps as a way to calm fans’ nerves, general manager Elton Brand downplayed the preseason hype and pointed toward the postseason during a TV appearance Thursday.

“We talked about this during the preseason; we knew it wasn’t going to be easy," he said on NBC Sports Philadelphia. “There are going to be some good teams, and they are going to be tough to play.

"But I know we are built for the playoffs.”

That was hard to tell in their 119-113 loss to the struggling Wizards, who were minus two starters.

Now the Sixers head into a stretch that could have a major impact on their season.

Thirteen of their next 18 games are against teams with winning records. Ten of those games are against teams ranked in the top five of the Eastern and Western Conference standings.

And the Sixers won’t ease into this tough stretch.

After facing the Raptors (15-6), they’ll host the Denver Nuggets (14-6) on Tuesday before traveling to the Boston Celtics (16-5) on Thursday. This 18-game stretch will also include a much-anticipated game against the Bucks on Christmas and matchups home (Dec. 20) and away (Jan. 11) against the Dallas Mavericks (16-6).

Nine of the 18 games will be at home, where the Sixers have a league-best 11-0 home record.. They’re only 5-7 on the road, however, and lost seven of their last nine games.

This would be a great time for them to end their road woes.

Plus, we’re about to learn a lot about the validity of the Sixers’ home record. Only four of those wins came against teams with winning records as of Friday.

They beat the Celtics in the season-opener. But Boston has drastically improved since then.

The Sixers toppled the Heat on Nov. 23 after Miami (16-6) arrived in Philadelphia at 3:30 a.m. the day of the game because of a weather delay in Chicago, where the Heat played the Bulls the night before. The Sixers needed three steals in the final 13.9 seconds to defeat the Indiana Pacers (15-8) on Nov. 30. And they held off the Utah Jazz, 103-94, on Dec. 2. That came one night after Utah trailed by as many as 40 points in a 130-110 loss to the Raptors.

The Jazz (12-10 as of Friday) had lost three straight by an average of 18 points and five of six games heading into Saturday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

So we’ll definitely find out if the Sixers are legitimate or lucky.

We’ll also find out if Horford and Embiid can coexist, if Harris can continue to excel in a closer role, and if coach Brett Brown can stay off the hot seat.

It’s true that it will take a while to incorporate the new players on the roster, and they should get better with time. But right now, the pieces don’t fit.

And that’s not good, considering the pressure on Brown, the front office, and ownership this season. The organization made major moves and shelled out a lot of money this offseason. As a result, one could argue anything less than reaching the NBA Finals would be a major disappointment.

With those lofty expectations, things could begin to go south for the Sixers if they struggle during this upcoming stretch.

Fingers could start pointing at Brown or Embiid or Simmons.

Folks might wonder if Brown is using the talent he has properly. They’ll question why Embiid, at 7-foot-2 and 280-plus pounds, isn’t always in the paint or lacks championship-caliber conditioning. And Simmons will continue to be criticized for passing up shots.

But it’s bigger than those three. The team’s overall shooting and bench are question marks. So much so that the Sixers are expected to make some in-season moves.

If they win, however, no one will wonder about Embiid’s conditioning or shooting from the perimeter. They will celebrate Simmons for being an elite defender and for his unselfishness. And they’ll praise Brown.

Brown said ‘it’s going to take until past Christmas’ for the Sixers to find their rhythm.

Well, Christmas is approaching. So is what could be season-defining stretch.

Here are the 76ers’ next 18 opponents

Sunday: vs. Raptors (15-6 record), 6 p.m.

Tuesday: vs. Nuggets (14-6), 7

Thursday: at Celtics (16-5), 8

Friday: vs. Pelicans (6-17), 7

Next Sunday: at Nets (12-10), 6

Dec. 18: vs. Heat (16-6), 7

Dec. 20: vs. Mavericks (16-6), 8

Dec. 21: vs. Wizards (7-14), 7

Dec. 23: at Pistons (9-14), 7

Dec. 25: vs. Bucks (20-3), 2:30 p.m.

Dec. 27: at Magic (11-11), 7

Dec. 28: at Heat, 8

Dec. 31: at Pacers (15-8), 3

Jan. 3: at Rockets (14-7*), 8

Jan. 6: vs. Thunder (9-12), 7

Jan. 9: vs. Celtics, 7

Jan. 11: at Mavericks, 8:30

Jan. 13: at Pacers, 7

* Records heading into Saturday night’s games.