So… what exactly are the Sixers?

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From SBNation’s excellent Sixers’ blog Liberty Ballers (pardon the extensive blockquote, but I need it for context):

Denver, Atlanta, Miami. That was the “tough stretch” Jordan wrote about early last week. Finally, after 13 games where the opponents winning percentage was a lowly .371, they’d play some actual competition. Now, we’d find out if this team really had some marbles or if they were pulling the wool over our eyes with deceiving teaminess. 79% of you voted that they would win at least two of those three games.

Well, you know what happened. A crushing overtime loss to Denver at the spiteful hands of Andre Miller kicked it off. Next, the the Hawks came to town and it looked like they were going to upend the Sixers as well before a second half hurricane came through and blew Atlanta out of the water. And then last night, in what was the toughest game scheduled, a road game in Miami on the second night of a back-to-back, the defense couldn’t stop LeBron James and Chris Bosh, allowing them to pull away late in the third due to coaching miscues and frontcourt abandonment.

So where do we stand now? At 11-5, they have a commanding lead over the Atlantic, that much is certain. And with the 2nd place Knicks dealing with injuries and chemistry issues, a 5-game lead this early lets them breathe a little bit. But in terms of their place in the East come playoff time, have you gotten any indication that they could beat any of the better teams? Or does the record speak for itself and they’re still legit? I’m just interested in what you think, considering that the only two teams over .500 the Sixers have beaten are the Al Horford-less Hawks and the Danny Granger-less Pacers. The next best team they defeated is the 6-9 Suns. Just something to think on…

via Re-Assessing the Sixers After The Three Game Test – Liberty Ballers.

When you follow the league to the extent many of us do, that is, to a borderline-obsessive, even-beat-writers-think-we-should-get-a-life extent, you tend to get irritated with this idea that the end results tend to validate the preconceived notions.

To wit, the Philadelphia 76ers were considered a mediocre team before the start of the season, losses to top teams proved that they are such despite their record, and an inevitable first or second-round elimination will cement that as their identity. Except the Sixers aren’t a mediocre team. They’re a very good team that lost to the hottest team in the West outside of OKC (the Nuggets just went 4-0 in a four-games-in-five-night road trip with injuries,which is insane), and arguably the best team in the league. Furthermore, you watch enough 20-point losses, you learn which feel like 20-point losses and which don’t. The Sixers hung with the Heat. They made some plays. The Heat simply overpowered them because when the Heat are engaged, and not doing… whatever they were doing on that three-game road trip… they are nigh on unstoppable.

The Sixers are extremely well coached this season. And while it’s a virtual lock that Philadelphia’s bench unit will not continue their insane pace, they still have exceptional depth. Andre Iguodala took six shots against the Heat. For comparison, Joel Anthony took nine Saturday night. This isn’t to say the Sixers are as good as the Heat. They aren’t. They’re going to lose in the second round to either Chicago or Miami in all likelihood. But the Sixers’ lack of consistent competition creates a significantly small sample size, and we shouldn’t toss out their superb play against weak teams, because some of the best teams struggle with poor teams. Consistency is the mark of real value in this league, and the Sixers have been strikingly consistent. Their effort level doesn’t fluctuate game-to-game, half-to-half, quarter to quarter. They’re committed to one another, have balance, speed, depth and youth.

You can write the obituary for the Sixers now, barring one of the most miraculous runs in NBA history, but that doesn’t mean that the shotgun, first-glance perceptions we had in preseason reveal the identity of this team.

You have to watch Philadelphia to understand Philadelphia.

 

Heat’s Justise Winslow fined $15,000 for stepping on Embiid’s mask

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NEW YORK (AP) Miami’s Justise Winslow has been fined $15,000 by the NBA for attempting to damage Philadelphia center Joel Embiid‘s facemask during Game 3 of their playoff series.

Winslow intentionally stepped on Embiid’s mask after it had fallen onto the court with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter of the 76ers’ 128-108 victory on Thursday night.

The NBA cited Winslow for unsportsmanlike conduct in announcing the penalty Friday.

Embiid was wearing the mask for the first time after returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken orbital bone around his left eye.

Philadelphia leads the series 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday.

Defense found: Bucks overwhelm Celtics for 116-92 win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored 23 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 19 and the Milwaukee Bucks used a dominating first half to overwhelm the Boston Celtics 116-92 on Friday night, narrowing their deficit in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.

Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker each added 17 for the energized Bucks, who held the Celtics without a field goal for nearly an 11-minute stretch of the first half.

Milwaukee found its defense after a disheartening 14-point loss in Game 2, getting contributions from up and down the roster.

Backup center Thon Maker scored 14 points and had five of the Bucks’ 12 blocks. Pesky guard Matthew Dellavedova, a veteran of a championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped hold young Celtics point guard Terry Rozier to nine points on 2-of-7 shooting.

“The activity, if you take the stat sheet out of it, the activity and the energy that we brought … as you go through the game, that’s what you need, is the energy first,” coach Joe Prunty said.

Al Horford scored 16 for the Celtics, who fell behind by 23 at halftime and got no closer than 76-62 with 3:06 left in the third quarter on Jayson Tatum‘s 3-pointer.

The game was so well in hand that the Bucks closed out the victory even with Antetokounmpo on the bench for much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. Middleton had eight points in the fourth.

Game 4 is Sunday in Milwaukee. The Celtics will need to get off to a much better start if they want to avoid going home for Game 5 with a 2-2 series tie.

“We got into a hole. This is new for our group,” Horford said. “They had it going … and we really didn’t have an answer for them tonight.”

Milwaukee hustled for loose balls and stayed active around the paint, used its length to get deflections and disrupt Boston in the lane.

The 7-foot-1 Maker, in particular, provided a huge boost to help Milwaukee counter what had been a decisive edge off the bench for the Celtics. Maker got extended minutes only because starting center John Henson missed the game with a sore back.

Nearly everything else went Milwaukee’s way, too.

Parker, who voiced displeasure this week after playing just 24 minutes over the first two games, was 7 of 12 from the field and played 30 minutes. Bledsoe, outplayed by Rozier in the first two games, shot 8 of 13.

“Good win, lots of positives tonight. Quick turnaround … so we’ll have to do it again on Sunday,” Prunty said.

 

Wizards show some fight, top Raps 122-103, get series to 2-1

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WASHINGTON (AP) — All of about 2 1/2 minutes into the game, Washington forward Markieff Morris and Toronto’s OG Anunoby needed to be separated after a near-fight that drew in other players.

Early in the third quarter Friday night, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry was called for a flagrant foul when he swiped a hand across Bradley Beal‘s forehead as the Wizards guard went in for a breakaway layup. Later in that period, things really came close to spiraling out of control, but John Wall‘s bodyguard interceded when Washington’s All-Star jawed with Toronto’s Serge Ibaka.

As that scene unfolded on the court, spectators directed “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants at the opponents from Canada, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blared over the arena’s speakers. Amid all the ruckus, Beal and Wall kept their heads and helped the Wizards pull further and further away for a 122-103 victory.

What was once a dull, lopsided series is suddenly quite interesting.

Beal heeded his coach’s plea to “do his job” by scoring 21 of his 28 points in the first half, Wall delivered 28 points and 14 assists, and the eighth-seeded Wizards cut their Eastern Conference first-round playoff deficit to 2-1.

“We’re not going out to try to box every game,” Beal said, before describing Morris as “a bully with a smile.”

Added Beal: “We came out tonight with an edge about ourselves.”

After letting the Raptors grab the first 2-0 series lead in franchise history, the Wizards came home and checked off every box coach Scott Brooks presented. They got Beal more involved after he made only three shots in Game 2; they actually led after the first quarter, 30-29; they produced 19 turnovers that led to 28 points.

“They came out and punched us,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “And we allowed them to.”

He meant that figuratively, of course, but the choice of words sure seemed apt.

The Raptors did appear to take the worse of the physical nature of the game.

DeMar DeRozan, who led Toronto with 23 points, wore a Band-Aid under his right eye afterward. Reserve Pascal Siakam held a bag of ice over a cut on his lip that required three stitches.

“Ain’t nobody fighting out here,” said Lowry, who had 19 points and eight assists. “I mean, it got physical, but ain’t nobody fighting. It’s a heated moment, but that’s the game of basketball.”

Each team boasts a pair of elite, All-Star guards. This time, Washington’s pair came out on top.

The start initially had the look of “Here we go again,” as Toronto moved ahead 27-18. The Raptors, after all, outscored Washington by an average of 11 points in the first period over Games 1 and 2. But this time, Washington responded with a 12-point run capped by Beal’s 3 with under a minute left.

Beal scored 12 in the quarter a day after he, Wall and Brooks met to discuss ways to get Beal more involved in the offense. Entering Friday, Beal was averaging only 14 points in the playoffs, well below his 22.6 average during the regular season.

“We need both our guys to step up,” Brooks said about Beal and Wall. “It was good tonight.”

 

Pacers erase 17-point deficit to take 2-1 lead over Cavs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 points, leading the Indiana Pacers back from a 17-point halftime deficit for a 92-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night for a 2-1 lead in their first-round series.

Cleveland was 39-0 during the regular season when leading after three quarters and kept that perfect mark intact with a Game 2 win.

The incredible second-half charge came exactly one year after Indiana blew a 26-point halftime lead in a historic playoff collapse against the Cavs.

This time, the Pacers delivered a devastating blow to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs – on a night LeBron Jones joined Michael Jordan as the only players in playoff history to record 100 double-doubles. James finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Cleveland from losing its first game this season after leading following the third quarter.

The biggest reason for the collapse: Bogdanovic.

After charging back with striking distance, he completed a four-point play to finally give the Pacers an 81-77 lead with 6:10 left. Bogdanovic followed that with another to make it as seven-point game.

Then James answered with the next seven to tie it.

Bogdanovic came right back with a layup and another 3 before Thaddeus Young scored to give the Pacers a 91-84 cushion with 53 seconds left.

James knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to four, and the Cavs got another 3 from Kevin Love with 7 seconds left to make it 91-90.

Darren Collison made 1 of 2 free throws with 5 seconds left, giving Cleveland one more chance. But J.R. Smith‘s long desperation heave came up short..