The J.J. Redick–Joel Embiid–Ben Simmons-Harris-Butler unit has played in just nine games together so far. While many playoff teams will try to give their starters some rest over the next two weeks, Philadelphia has no such luxury, as the team’s new pieces need as much time together as they can get to prepare for postseason battle.
“Because we have played so few games together, the importance of keeping these guys as much as you can on the court and experiencing playing with each other is really important,” coach Brett Brown said (via Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer). “So somewhere out there, you hope to strike a balance [between resting players and keeping players fresh].”
Various injuries and nights of rest have limited the team’s time together on the court. However, when the stars align, Brown has attempted to make the most of the opportunities. The starting five has seen nearly 17 minutes per contest, which is the most minutes per game among any Sixers’ 5-man combination all season (per NBA.com, including lineups pre-trade lineups).
The Sixers have a hold on the third seed in the conference by just two games over the Pacers and they own the tiebreaker with Indiana after winning three of four tilts this year. No one in Philadelphia is going to discuss a preferred opponent, but the seeding matters, as falling to No. 4 would likely mean a first-round battle with the Celtics.
While they recently beat Boston in a statement win, the Sixers have earned just four victories over their last 25 games against their Atlantic Division rival (including last season’s 4-1 playoff series loss). Imagine having to go through Boston, Toronto, and Milwaukee to get to the NBA Finals and doing so without much rest leading up to the playoffs. That undesirable path remains in play.
The team has seven games remaining and the upcoming schedule isn’t strenuous. Embiid & Co. take on the Nets in Philadelphia before a three-game business trip through Minnesota, Dallas, and Atlanta. The Sixers could lock up a top-three seed before they return to Philadelphia to play the Bucks on April 4. Yet, after back-to-back losses to the Hawks and Magic, penciling in W’s is a fool’s task.
The Sixers arguably present Golden State with the greatest matchup challenge among all Eastern Conference contenders. Whether they get the opportunity to try to take down the two-time reigning champs will likely come down to two factors: the path taken and familiarity with one another. On Thursday vs. the Nets, Philly will get a chance to work on both components, as the five starters are expected to play game number 10 together.