KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Bring on the Boston Celtics.
The 76ers learned their fate for the opening round of the playoffs minutes before 125-121 loss Wednesday night to Toronto Raptors.
The Indiana Pacers had just beaten the Houston Rockets to clinch at least the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. That locked the Sixers into the sixth spot and a first-round showdown with the third-seeded Celtics.
Sixers coach Brett Brown called the rivalry with the Celtics “historic.” “So to be able to have this opportunity again, we’re excited. We will treat this series with tremendous respect. But it’s certainly one that that we’re excited to compete against them.”
The Sixers’ loss to the Raptors was meaningless in the standings. It will be the same thing for the seeding-game finale Friday against the Rockets.
Perhaps the biggest suspense of the night involved Joel Embiid. The three-time All-Star center was whacked on his right hand in the first quarter.
He was evaluated at halftime and the X-rays were negative.
Embiid was scheduled to play limited minutes and did not return in the second half. He finished with five points on 1-for-5 shooting to go with nine rebounds and five turnovers in 13 minutes, 35 seconds. He did not speak after the game.
“We’re going to learn more,” Brown said. “I do know that it was whacked twice. But as it relates to what is next or the evaluation of it, I can’t comment on that.”
Tobias Harris finished with a game-high 22 points and a team-high two blocks in 24:46. Former Villanova and Cardinal Dougherty standout Kyle Lowry had 19 points in 24:56 for the Raptors (52-19).
The highlight of the game was the back and forth in-your-face celebrations by the Sixers’ and Raptors’ benches late in the game.
Right now, the focus is on making sure Embiid is healthy and getting the team ready for the Celtics (48-23) when the playoffs begin Monday.
The Sixers (42-30) must find a rhythm without Ben Simmons.
The two-time All-Star and team’s best defender had surgery Monday morning in Philadelphia to remove the loose body in his left knee. Simmons will be reevaluated in about two weeks. The team has been preparing for the playoffs as if the 6-foot-10, 248-pounder won’t be available for them.
So on Wednesday, starters Embiid (twisted left ankle), Josh Richardson (rest), Harris (sore right ankle), and Al Horford (sore left knee) were all available after missing Tuesday’s 130-117 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
They did rest guard Alec Burks (left foot soreness) and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer soreness). Robinson, who was a late scratch, will be reevaluated Thursday. The hip pointer held him out of all but Tuesday’s game.
The hope is that he’ll be ready to provide depth.
The Sixers hold a 3-1 season-series advantage against the Celtics. For Al Horford, this seasons comes against his former teammates.
“It’s part of the business,” he said. “We’ve already played them plenty of times this year. So that effect is kind of out of the way. Now we can just go out there and compete.
“It should be a fun series.”
Embiid averaged 21.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 2.0 blocks in three games played against the Celtics.
The Sixers match up well against Boston at the center position because the Celtics do not have many bigs. Daniel Theis, at 6-foot-8, is the starting center.
However, Horford might have a tough time defending their perimeter players. All-Star Jayson Tatum plays power forward in Boston’s small lineup. Boston also has an advantage at guard.
So Embiid may have to play at an MVP level for his team to win.
But the Sixers are motivated.
“I think we are ready to fight against everybody,” said Furkan Korkmaz, who finished with 21 points against the Raptors. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. We all know every time, Philly against Boston, is a big deal, it’s a big game. And then we start talking about matchups, how we can guard them, how they can guard us.
“But I think the most important thing is what are we going to do on the court.”
To him, how the Sixes show up is more important than what the Celtics are doing, He and his teammates know that’s going to be key for them.
“So we are all ready,” Korkmaz said. “We are all ready to fight.”
On Tuesday, the Sixers faced a Raptors team without four players and head coach Nick Nurse.
Toronto was without Oshae Brissett (right knee soreness), Patrick McCaw (left knee soreness), OG Anunoby (right knee soreness), and Serge Ibaka (right knee bruise).
Nurse took the night off, as assistant Adrian Griffin coached the Raptors. Nurse was in the arena. With the second seed in the East locked up, this was a good opportunity to give Griffin, a head-coaching candidate, experience.
“I think coach [Nurse] is an awesome human being.,” Griffin said. “He understands that a coach like me that needs some reps in being a head coach. He knows my ambitions. He wants to see me grow as an individual on and off the court. It’s an awesome gesture by coach.”
Nurse approached Griffin with the idea.
On Friday, the Rockets will be without Russell Westbrook. The point guard underwent an MRI that revealed a strained muscle in his right quadriceps.
But that game will be another dress researcher for the Celtics.