Has it really come down to this?
Friends keeps telling me the 76ers will finish first in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Their reasoning has nothing to do with players getting healthy, finding a rhythm, or how they match up with the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks.
It has everything to do with the Sixers’ strength of schedule, or, better yet, weakness of schedule.
The second-place Sixers (39-21) have the easiest remaining schedule, according to tankathon.com.
In comparison, the first-place Nets (41-20) have the 13th hardest, while the third-place Bucks (37-23) have the fifth-easiest.
As of Monday morning, the Atlanta Hawks, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat were the Sixers’ only opponents in the final 12 games with winning records.
The Sixers host the Hawks (34-27) in a two-game series on Wednesday and Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. On May 2, they’ll face the Spurs (30-29) at the AT&T Center. The Sixers will play the Heat (32-29) at AmericanAirlines Arena on May 13.
My friends have solid points when you factor that in.
However, this is a Sixers squad that has been prone to play down to its competition.
For proof, think about their losses to the Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Toronto Raptors, three of the conference’s four worst teams. The Sixers are also dealing with health issues.
Ben Simmons returned to action for Monday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder with what coach Doc Rivers said Saturday was the flu. Joel Embiid is dealing with right shoulder soreness in addition to playing with a brace on his left knee due to a bone bruise. Tobias Harris is still hampered by his right knee bone bruise.
Like Simmons, Embiid, Harris, and reserve Furkan Korkmaz (sprained right ankle) were the Sixers’ rotation players, who were cleared to play against the Thunder (20-40), after being listed as questionable. Seldom-used rookie Paul Reed is cleared to play after being in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Danny Green (left hip recovery) and Mike Scott (left hip soreness) were held out of the contest.
The Sixers are expected to defeat the tanking Thunder no matter who plays.
But, as I mentioned last week, it’s hard to go by any team’s strength of schedule due to elite teams’ keeping players out to heal and rest up for the playoffs.
While the Sixers are trying to get players back on the floor, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant scored 33 points off the bench Sunday in his first game back from a thigh bruise. Kyrie Irving had 34 points and 12 assists in the Nets’ 128-119 victory over the Western Conference’s second-place Phoenix Suns.
Meanwhile, the Bucks are fully healthy.
So it should be an interesting three-team race down the stretch.
One can argue a lot of the Sixers’ success will depend on who’s available to play. And while the Sixers would like newcomer George Hill to mesh with key rotation players, they’re also looking to avoid injuries.
It’s hard to imagine Embiid playing all remaining 12 games. The same for Harris.
Now, that’s not to say the conference title is out of reach for the Sixers. It’s just that it won’t depend only on having the easiest schedule.
This is the same squad that was 31-13 before the trade deadline and went 9-8 afterward, mostly due to injuries. It’s a team that must find rhythm down the stretch, get players in shape for the postseason while also getting them healthy and avoiding further injuries.