We’re about to find out if the 76ers are more successful than their recent predecessors.
Much has been made about the hiring of Doc Rivers and a new coaching staff, bringing in the new role players, and employing Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations. Folks celebrated the Sixers finishing with the Eastern Conference’s best record for the first time in 20 years. And the team can boast a league MVP finalist in Joel Embiid and a defensive player of the year finalist in Ben Simmons.
But none of that will matter if the Sixers don’t beat the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, aka the second round. Game 1 is 1 p.m. Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center.
If the Sixers lose the series, this season will have a similar ending to 2018 and 2019 under former coach Brett Brown.
Like this season, there was a lot of hype surrounding the team heading into the postseason in each of those campaigns. Like this season, they only needed five games to eliminate their first-round opponents. Yet, those campaigns concluded with second-round exits.
The Boston Celtics disposed of the Sixers in five games in 2018. The Toronto Raptors eliminated them on Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce buzzer-beater in Game 7 in 2019.
But second-round exits are the Sixers’ albatross.
They’re looking to win a second-round series for just the second time in the franchise’s last 11 appearances, dating back to 1986. They beat the Raptors in seven games in 2001 en route to finishing as NBA Finals runners-up.
Rivers and Morey were brought in after the Sixers were swept by the Celtics in the first round last season. The additions of the league’s 10th-winningest coach and a renowned executive were made to get the Sixers beyond the second round.
In fact, Morey shared his expectations in January, saying, “I think we’re pretty [much] championship or bust.”
So how will this season’s squad be remembered if it loses to the Hawks a series shy of the conference finals?
When asked if losing to the Hawks would mean the season as all for naught, Tobias Harris answered: “I would never think like that. No. That doesn’t even cross my mind. So, honestly, I stopped listening to you after you said that last line.”
Let’s put it this way, the ultimate goal is to win a championship. The Sixers would fail at that quest by losing in any series, never mind the second round. By not getting out of the second round means this would be similiar to the previous two times they reached this round. Right?
In response, Harris said, “That was the same question. All I’m going to say is this: We got Atlanta. It’s a brand new series for us. It’s a new challenge, and we’re ready to go.”
The second round has also been a place where Rivers has had issues, unable to advance to the conference finals while coaching the Los Angeles Clippers the past seven seasons. But in 2008, he led the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship over the Los Angeles Lakers. His Celtics lost to the Lakers in the Finals in 2010, and they reached the conference finals two seasons later.
Rivers led the Clippers to six postseason appearances in his seven seasons in Los Angeles. They reached and lost in the second round three times. The last two times -- 2020 and 2015 -- they were a game away and failed to advance, blowing a commanding 3-1 lead both times.
Rivers was the fall guy last year and was let go by the Clippers after they failed to live up to lofty expectations following the acquisitions of both Leonard and Paul George.
Maybe that has something to do with Rivers repeating the mantra, “We have accomplished nothing as far as we’re concerned” since coming to Philly. Maybe he’s now looking at the big picture. However, one has to wonder if he views the second-rounder with the Hawks as a big moment based on his and the Sixers’ recent playoff history.
“Not at all, because if your goal is to get out of the second round, how low are your goals?” Rivers said. “You know, really that’s not my goal. If that happens, and if that’s all you get, then that’s not successful for me or hopefully our team, hopefully our city. Like, we want more.
“We want the entire cake ...”
As the No. 1 seed, the Sixers were expected to beat the eighth-seeded Wizards. Afterall, they’re one of the conference’s three elite teams. The two other elite squads, the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets and the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, are going head-to-head in the other conference semifinal.
As the top seed, the expectation is that the Sixers should, at the minimum, reach the conference finals.
Embiid is listed as questionable for Game 1 with a small meniscus tear in his right knee.
This series could be closer than people expect, regardless of Embiid’s status, which was upgraded to questionable Saturday afternoon.
The Hawks have a high-scoring point guard in Trae Young, who’s hard to stop. And former Friends Central School standout De’Andre Hunter, at 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, has the size to guard Simmons and/or Harris. They’re also big across the front line with with elite rim protector Clint Capela (6-10, 240) and John Collins (6-9, 235). And they have 6-6 guard Bogdan Bogdanović, who can shoot and be a playmaker for others.
Capela predicted correctly that the Hawks would end their opening-round series against the New York Knicks in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. He was asked Saturday if he had any predictions about the Sixers series.
“I’m going to see how it goes,” he said. “It’s definitely a team with way more experience.”
The Sixers are looking to correct the miscues they made in their previous two second-round appearances. Furkan Korkmaz said that, at the time, the team wasn’t focused on playing for 48 minutes.
“That’s what you need for the playoffs, especially,” Korkmaz said. “I think we play really good basketball for like 20, 25 minutes and then three minutes of basketball and three minutes of losing focus; especially the problem was on the road.”
Now, they can get the losing-in-the-second-round gorilla off their backs.
“We just can not wait to play, because we know this is our time,” Korkmaz said.
The Sixers had three days in between Wednesday’s first-round clincher and Game 1 of the conference semifinal with the Hawks.
“I was looking at the guys,” Korkmaz said of the in-between series break. “I can tell in their eyes like everybody, we cannot wait to play.”