Philly, we may have a problem.
Sure, the 76ers are riding a season-best, eight-game winning streak after defeating the Eastern Conference’s last-place Detroit Pistons, 118-104, Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center. Now, they’re two wins away from clinching the conference’s No. 1 seed.
During the current winning streak, the Sixers (47-21) have looked more like a team reaping the benefits of playing losing, undermanned teams than being an NBA title contender.
Like their previous seven games, the Sixers faced a Pistons squad playing without several key players. Detroit (20-48) was without Hamidou Diallo, Josh Jackson, Rodney McGruder, and Dennis Smith Jr.
The Sixers were also undermanned, playing without Ben Simmons (back tightness), Seth Curry (left hip injury recovery), and Furkan Korkmaz (sprained right ankle).
But despite playing seemingly overmatched opponents, the Sixers’ reserves blew leads in three of the last five games. That forced the starters, who were hoping to get some late-season rest, to check back in and close out those games. The Sixers also suffered, at times, from a lack of ball movement, untimely turnovers, and failure to give optimum effort.
Asked Friday night, after a too-close two-point win over the New Orleans Pelicans, to assess how the Sixers are performing lately, Danny Green said, “Not well.”
“Not our type of basketball,” he said. “We’re getting wins. But I don’t like the way we are getting them.”
Green knows they have to be more locked in. A 12-year veteran with three NBA championships, the small forward knows that the saying “any team can win on any given night” is accurate. He’s also aware that all 30 NBA teams have talent, regardless of their records.
“But these teams are not 100 percent healthy,” he said. “They don’t have everybody. And if we are going to play like the No. 1 team in the East or a championship contender or a team that wants to be the last team standing ... we need to do a lot better.”
Green believes that some Sixers feel like they only need to play offense against undermanned teams. He also believes the Sixers feel like they just have to show up to get a victory.
“So we’re not playing the right way, offensively or defensively,” Green said.
But it’s bigger than overconfidence. Some of this can be attributed to lack of depth.
At times, the Sixers’ starters have made mistakes and missed their share of shots. However, the unit has still built sizable leads, as one would expect against injury-riddled teams. The glaring problem has been the Sixers’ all-reserve lineup, especially late in the third or into the fourth quarter.
Everyone knows the opponent will make a run. It’s just matter of whether the backups can deal with the difficult situation or whether the starters will be forced to come back in.
They had to do the latter in Friday’s 109-107 victory over the Pelicans, in last Sunday’s 113-111 overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs, and yet again in last Monday’s 106-94 victory over the Chicago Bulls.
The Sixers’ reserves -- led by Shake Milton (minus-17), Matisse Thybulle (-16), Dwight Howard (-15), and Mike Scott (-13) -- were a combined minus-68 against the Bulls.
Things weren’t any better for the backups on Friday when they finished a combined minus-59.
All five reserves -- Milton (minus-15), Howard (-12), George Hill (-11), Thybulle (-11), and Scott (-10) -- had double-digit minuses. Meanwhile, all five starters -- Green (plus-18), Joel Embiid (14), Simmons (13), and Tobias Harris and Curry (12) -- had double-digit pluses.
However, coach Doc Rivers said he wasn’t concerned with his second unit blowing three leads in a four-game span.
“I’ve learned long ago, if you overreact, you get yourself in trouble,” he said Friday. “I’m not that concerned at all.”
Rivers doubled down one night later, after easily beating Detroit, in expressing confidence in his bench heading into the postseason.
“We will not blink at playing 11 guys if we need,” he said. “We are that deep. We are that talented.”
But even on Saturday, Rivers brought Harris back in with 7 minutes, 54 seconds remaining and the Pistons on a 9-2 run to pull within 12 points (97-85).Embiid came in 19 seconds later. Embiid exited for good with 4:10 left and Harris subbed out at the 3:28 mark with the Sixers back up 19. The duo squashed what could have been another blown lead by the reserves.
Rivers’ squad is well on its way to finishing with the conference’s top seed for the first time since 2000-01. The Sixers also have a chance to conclude the regular season with 12 consecutive victories. That would be their best season-ending finish since they concluded the 2017-18 regular season with an NBA-record 16 straight wins.
But one has to wonder how the Sixers would have played down the stretch against tougher competition.
Before this winning streak, the Sixers lost four straight games, against the Golden State Warriors, the Phoenix Suns, and the Milwaukee Bucks (twice). Some have pointed to Simmons being sidelined with an illness for all four of those losses.
However, Simmons’ presence may not have made much of a difference against the Bucks, who dominated the Sixers. And his presence isn’t the reason they’re on a winning streak.
Let’s keep it real. The Sixers are not just playing undermanned teams during the winning streak, they’re playing teams without their No. 1 options.
Among those sitting out when they played the Oklahoma City Thunder were former Sixer and five-time All-Star Al Horford, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; against San Antonio, it was four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan; against Chicago, All-Stars Zach LaVine and Nik Vucevic were out; the Houston Rockets were without Christian Wood and five-time All-Star John Wall; and New Orleans was minus All-Star Zion Williamson and 2020 All-Star Brandon Ingram. Trae Young, also a 2020 All-Star, missed one game during Atlanta’s two-game series in Philadelphia.
And despite having only two of their top seven players available Friday night, the Pelicans led, 107-104, with 1:47 remaining. The Sixers scored the game’s last five points to eke out the win.
The Sixers had a commanding 17-point cushion in the second quarter against New Orleans. But the Pelicans came back and Philly’s reserves lost the lead in the third quarter. Some will argue that it’s a natural tendency to let down against an undermanned squad. But ...
“I guess it’s human nature,” Green said, “but as a team, as a mature team, we need to start playing, starting, and finishing games. Throughout the duration of games, staying locked-in and being more focused.”
We’ll find out quickly whether it’s a focus problem or actually a lack-of-depth problem that’s being exposed.