One of the emergent truths of the internet age is that when a story headline contains a question, the answer is always “no.”
That maxim would have extended to this story if we’d decided to title it, “Can the Sixers stop Kemba Walker?” Which is why we did not title it that. Although, I suppose, the secret is now out.
The lack of suspense notwithstanding, the question is worth some examination, because it will animate much of what the Sixers do between now and their playoff opener next week at a date and time (but not location) to be determined.
For those who exhausted themselves trying to figure out the NHL’s playoff format, things in the NBA are a little easier to understand. After a 130-117 loss to the Suns on Tuesday, the only thing that will save the Sixers from a first-round matchup against the Celtics is an improbable confluence of events.
With two games remaining and a one-game deficit behind Indiana in the Eastern Conference standings, they would need to beat both the Raptors and the Rockets and the Pacers would need to lose to both the Heat and the Rockets in order to move up to the fifth seed. Absent that, the Sixers will face the Celtics for the right to survive another round in the quest to eventually lose to the Bucks.
Fortunately for the Sixers, they might not have to worry about Milwaukee. At first glance, the matchup against the Celtics might not look bad, apart from Boston’s superior talent and superior coach. After all, the Sixers went 3-1 in the regular-season series, and Ben Simmons’ absence should lend a comfortable degree of familiarity to the proceedings.
That last bit is a joke, of course. Simmons’ offensive track record against Brad Stevens’ inventive matchups might not be documentary-worthy, but 72 games is a large enough sample size to conclude that the Sixers were never going to make it to the Eastern Conference finals by outscoring opponents.
Their surest path to a title -- or at, least, to the averting of disaster -- was always going to start on the other end of the court. True, the Sixers have given us little reason to believe that lurking inside them is the elite defensive team that they promised us last summer. But you could at least talk yourself into thinking that, maybe, the increased intensity and physicality of the playoffs could be the right environment for the long-awaited breakout.
One of the biggest reasons you could fool yourself into thinking that way was Simmons’ emerging prowess as a defender, along with the experience he gained against Kawhi Leonard in last year’s Eastern finals.
Now? The biggest question might not be whether the Sixers can stop Walker, but who will get the first crack at failing to do so. Whatever calculus Brett Brown uses to determine the answer, his equation will almost certainly include a couple of variables who were on the court against the Suns. Mathisse Thybulle and Glenn Robinson, Sixers Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Unlike the Suns, who ride or die largely on the back of young gunslinger Devin Booker, the Celtics are a more complex problem than Walker alone.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have both had their moments against the Sixers, and Stevens is as good a team basketball coach as there is in the NBA. But you don’t to dig too deep into the Sixers’ track record to realize that Walker is the reason to fret.
Live ball guards have long been an Achilles heel for Brown’s teams. When T.J. Warren and Damian Lillard both go for 50-plus in a span of 10 days, it’s a good bet that the entire spectrum is a problem.
As good as Lillard is, Walker might be the top of the food chain, at least when it comes to matching up against the Sixers. In four games against them last season, the former Hornets star averaged an absurd 37 points per outing, including a 60-point outburst.
Even for an elite defensive team, Walker’s skills demand a more modest approach than hoping to stop him outright. Witness the Sixers’ three wins against the Celtics in the regular season: Walker averaged 22 points per game, which is better than his season average overall, but he did so on 22-of-59 (.372) shooting.
Problem is, the last of those wins was more than eight months ago, and the first of them closer to a full calendar year. Even with Simmons, the Sixers’ defensive performance in the bubble leaves little reason for optimism.
Of course, that didn’t stop Brown from trying after Tuesday’s loss, when Booker took advantage of Thybulle’s foul trouble and scored 35 points on 11-for-24 shooting. He mentioned Thybulle, Robinson, and Josh Richardson as the three defensive wings who will be most responsible for the assignments that ordinarily would have gone to Simmons.
Despite Booker’s final total, it was a relatively ordinary outing from the star, with the Sixers’ doom coming more by way of the hot hands of a former draft pick (Mikal Bridges) and a former teammate (Dario Saric), who combined for 42 points while hitting 5 of 7 three-pointers.
The Sixers hope to use the next couple of games to solidify the defense they’ll need whether their chief first-round antagonist is Walker or Jimmy Butler.
“I feel like we did that tonight,” Brown said. “We were able to connect some of the dots on things that will be transferable to the playoffs.”
He said the focus will be on “key points in areas that I think are going to be most important, with a little bit of detail on guessing out who those teams that we may play would look like.”
The presence of Joel Embiid as a rim protector will play a central role, assuming the big man returns from the ankle injury that knocked him out of Sunday’s loss to Portland. While the Sixers’ can’t completely discount the Heat, who present a couple of difficult matchups of their own in Butler and Kendrick Nunn, you can expect that most of their attention will be paid to their most likely mission.
How do you stop one of the fastest guards in the NBA when you are missing your defensive stopper?