It’s January 11 and the Philadelphia 76ers are facing off against the Boston Celtics in London of all places. They build a 22-point lead at O2 Arena, but watch the Celtics storm back for a relatively easy 11-point victory. The loss drops the 76ers to 19-20 -- the last time they’ll dip below .500 on the season. They entered 2018 with an admirable, but attainable goal of making the playoffs. At this point they are on the outside looking in.
Beginning with their next game, a victory over the Raptors in Philadelphia, they go on a tear. After returning from England, they finish 33-10 overall, including 16 straight wins to end the regular season. Goals established at the start of training camp are suddenly obsolete; perhaps no team is hotter entering the playoffs.
Flash forward to Wednesday night and the Sixers’ season has ended at the hands of the Celtics, the same team that ruined their trip across the pond. In one game they squander a 22-point lead again, in two more they lose thanks in large part to poor late-game execution. What would have been a major step forward for The Process just a few months ago now leaves them feeling empty.
“If we all sat in that room when we met on September, whatever it was, and said we’re gonna finish third in the Eastern Conference, we’re gonna lose in the semifinals, there’s a strong chance we all would have been hugging each other,” Brett Brown said after the season-ending loss.
For a team that won fewer than 20 games three times in the last five seasons, Brown isn’t sugarcoating. Expectations only change drastically for a team in the second half of the season if they a) acquire a star at the trade deadline, or b) lose a major player to injury. The Sixers did add Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, but they still weren’t supposed to be this good, this soon.
“I feel like we had more. We got a lot of talented guys,” Joel Embiid said. “We didn’t play our best. Some games some guys were playing well, some guys didn’t, but we feel like when everybody’s on, we’re unbeatable. We committed a lot of mistakes; we’ve got to learn from it. We definitely had more to show.”
When you go a month without losing a game, you gain that level of confidence. The roll Philadelphia had been on, coupled with Boston losing Kyrie Irving, and briefly Jaylen Brown, made the Sixers a trendy pick to go from the lottery directly to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It may look like the Sixers fell short against the Celtics, but the 17-18 season was still wildly successful for a franchise that has been preaching patience for what seems like forever.
The success of Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum has greatly effected how we view rookies. Ben Simmons, asinine argument about him learning on the bench last season aside, is still a first-year player. This is the longest season of basketball he’s played in his lifetime and he’s still just 21. Mitchell and Tatum stepping right into the postseason lights and thriving immediately is the anomaly, not Simmons looking overwhelmed at times.
“I’m just learning. This is just the start for me,” Simmons said when asked about his inconsistent play. “I have a long way to go, so, second series and I’m learning. There are a lot of things I learned this series that I didn’t against Miami. That makes me a better player. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Young teams are supposed to struggle, take their lumps and emerge better for it. Take for example, Jaylen Brown, who is averaging 16.2 points and 4.9 rebounds for the Celtics while playing stellar defense. As a rookie last season he contributed just 5.0 points and 2.1 boards in nearly a third as many minutes. He shot 21.7% from three as the Celtics made a run to the conference finals. He struggled, learned and matured.
“I learned a lot. Going into the series Miami guarded us differently and then you go into Boston, they are way better defensively and they guarded us a certain way,” Embiid admitted. “It takes time to figure that out and literally, every game is different.”
Embiid insists that The Process will never end for the Sixers. It’s now a process of managing ever-changing expectations for a team that is full of promise going forward. Sounds like he’s a quick learner.