76ers: Sixers still have a shot

Tom Moore
Gannett Media
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

Let’s take a glass-half-full approach with the 76ers.

With 18 games remaining in the NBA regular season, the 38-26 Sixers went into Tuesday sixth in the Eastern Conference — one game behind the No. 5 Pacers and two in back of the No. 4 Heat.

While that is not what anybody expected coming into a season with such high expectations, there is still time for the Sixers to get their act together and advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000-01.

Assuming the Sixers can get healthy and in sync by the postseason – which, admittedly is far from a sure thing – Brett Brown’s team would face the No. 3 Celtics in the first round of the playoffs if the current seeds hold. While beating Boston without homecourt advantage wouldn’t be easy, the Sixers’ only road win against playoff teams ahead of them in the East – they’re 1-9 – was against the Celtics on Dec. 12.

A best-of-seven series victory over Boston would likely bring the second-seeded Raptors in the conference finals. The Raptors are a pleasant surprise following the departure of NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers, but potentially beatable. The Bucks would then await in the conference finals.

Yes, the odds are against the Sixers making such a run, given their 10-24 road record, including a 1-3 West Coast trip that ended with Saturday’s disappointing 118-114 loss to the undermanned Warriors (Golden State snapped a 10-game home skid), are not especially good.

For that to be realistic, it needs to start with Wednesday night’s game (7) against the Pistons, which begins a four-game home stand.

With star center Joel Embiid (sprained left shoulder) and starting shooting guard Josh Richardson (concussion) practicing Tuesday after sitting out the last five and three games, respectively, the Sixers could be getting a big boost if the two essential players are back.

“It was a significant difference,” said Brown of having those two participating again.

The Sixers listed Embiid as questionable vs. Detroit on the injury report and Richardson wasn’t even mentioned.

All-star point guard Ben Simmons has missed the last seven games – and played a total of five minutes in the last nine – due to a pinched nerve in his lower back. There was no update on Simmons, who was expected to be re-evaluated in “approximately two weeks,” (which was Saturday). It’s unclear how much longer Simmons will be sidelined.

Asked Tuesday if there’s enough time for the Sixers to be as prepared as they need to be heading into the playoffs, Richardson replied, “I mean, I’m hoping so. I think we all are.”

“Hopefully we can put together some healthy games at the end of this stretch just to get our feet under us again. But we’ll see how it plays out.”

Brown said he plans on “investing in the (Embiid and Al Horford) pairing,” which has not been effective, sans Simmons before re-assessing the situation when – if? – Simmons returns X.

Embiid declined comment after Tuesday’s practice.

Brown, the Sixers’ seventh-year coach, believes the emergence of a player like Shake Milton, who has been better than anybody could have anticipated filling in for Simmons at the point, should continue to help the depth as Philly gets its key players back.

In the meantime, the NBA has instituted some changes brought on by the coronavirus.

Just as in other pro sports, locker rooms will be closed on game days to anybody other than non-essential team personnel and interviews must be conducted six to eight feet from the media. On Tuesday, that meant players stood on one side of a long metal desk in the lobby of the Sixers’ training facility and the media on the other.

“Dealing with all this, it puts a lot of perspective in things,” Horford said. “You’re making sure you’re taking care of yourself better and trying to do better for people around you. It has been stressful, at times.”

It’s possible the NBA could decide to play games without fans in attendance to minimize the risk, which probably wouldn’t be good news, basketball-wise, for a Sixers club with a league-best 28-2 home record.

“That’s an interesting dynamic,” Richardson said. “It’d be weird for a lot of guys. I guess it would kind of be like a pickup game at that point.”

Tom Moore: tmoore@couriertimes.com; @TomMoorePhilly