Last season, the 76ers kept telling us everything would be fine.
Even when they underachieved and had chemistry problems, the Sixers reminded us that it was just the regular season They had one message: “We are built for the playoffs.”
It didn’t take long to realize that was false, as they were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the postseason.
The early exit led to a coaching change, the hiring of Daryl Morey as team president, and the changing of the team’s supporting cast.
It also served as motivation for this season. With coach Doc Rivers at the helm, the Sixers had one of the team’s best regular seasons in recent history.
Now, we’re about to find out if the new and improved squad is built to win a championship.
The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Sixers (49-23) will face the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is set for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center.
“I think everybody is motivated right now from the top all the way down to the bottom,” Shake Milton said. “We definitely have a bad taste just from last year, being swept and everything.
“But just from looking at guys and seeing the way we are approaching practices and how locked-in everybody is, we know what we are striving for and we know what our goal is, and that’s a championship.”
Milton thinks the Sixers will remain focused on that. “We’re ready,” he said.
The winner of this series will face the winner of the New York Knicks-Atlanta Hawks series in the second round.
Unlike last season, the Sixers head into the postseason with real lofty expectations, not just reassuring sound bites. This season would be a huge failure if they don’t at least advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
A lot of that has to do with a perceived easy path to the conference finals as the No. 1 seed.
The Sixers swept this season’s three regular-season meetings against the Wizards (34-38). They’ve also won two of this season’s three meetings against the Hawks (41-31). Even though Atlanta will be healthier than during their two losses to Philly in April, the Sixers should still beat them in a second-round series. And in regards to the Knicks (41-31), Philly has defeated them 15 straight times. It’s the longest current winning streak by an NBA team against an opponent.
Barring upsets, the Sixers would face the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets or the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals. And that’s where having home-court advantage would benefit Philly the most. The Sixers have the conference’s best and league’s second-best record of 29-7 at home. Meanwhile, they’re 20-16 on the road.
But that doesn’t mean the Sixers are overlooking the Wizards, who boast a dynamic backcourt tandem of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal.
Westbrook is the NBA’s career leader in triple-doubles at 184, while Beal averaged a league-second-best 31.3 points this season.
None of the Sixers’ veteran leaders had to mention that Washington is much better than when the teams last met on March 12. The Wizards won 15 of their final 20 regular-season games while qualifying for the play-in tournament. They clinched the eighth seed by defeating the Indiana Pacers on Thursday.
“I don’t think they’ve had to tell us on that, just from our leaders the way we’ve been conducting our practices,” said Milton, who averaged a team-second-best 18.7 points against the Wizards in the regular season. “The way everybody’s been engaged, I think everybody’s well aware that it’s gonna to be a totally different experience.
“Just from our mentality, I think guys are going to be ready to play.”
This will be the start of a solid opportunity for the Sixers to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2001.
Before being swept in the first round last season, the Sixers exited in the second round in their previous three postseason appearances (2012, 2018 and 2019). They also lost in the second round in 2003, but had first-round exits in 2002, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
So the Sixers, especially Ben Simmons, aren’t taking this opportunity for granted. He missed last season’s postseason after undergoing surgery on his left knee.
“I don’t take it for granted because I was in the same position last year and obviously got hurt and wasn’t able to play in the playoffs,” he explained. “For me and this team, we’ve got to take it as this could be the last opportunity we get to play with each other. That’s how we’ve got to look at every game. We’ve got to go out there and play like it’s our last.”
Sixers managing partners hosting health-care workers
Sixers managing partners Josh and Marjorie Harris and David and Allison Blitzer will host five health-care workers during Sunday’s game as a way to thank them for serving the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Ala Stanford, Michael Montemurro, Dr. Samson Zarbiv, Julian Griffith and Jessica Henning will receive a pair of tickets to the game and be recognized for their service on the Jumbotron during a timeout.