The last few years, March basketball in Philadelphia typically meant asking which players on 10-day contracts could most sufficiently expedite the 76ers‘ race to the bottom. This year, as a rigorous tanking effort has broken out among the bottom third of the league, the 76ers are finally jockeying for postseason positioning. Tuesday night, the Wells Fargo Center had a true playoff atmosphere. A win would have pulled the 76ers within a single game of third place in the Eastern Conference.
Instead, Indiana pulled out a three-point victory, prompting cries of consternation from the 76ers fan base that the team couldn’t beat good competition. The loss to the Pacers came at the tail end of a three-week period in which Philadelphia also lost twice to Miami and once each to Milwuakee and Washington. A road win over a free-falling Cavalier team was lost in the shuffle. Since then, last-minute wins over the Knicks and Nets are great for morale and the standings, but won’t dispel any notions that the team struggles against quality opponents.
The only problem is that the narrative is subject to a good deal of recency bias. Even after this recent difficult stretch, the 76ers are a reasonable 20-23 (.465) against “playoff” teams, a group which includes all current 1-8 seeds in addition to the Nuggets and Clippers; Philadelphia is 18-7 (.720) against the rest of the league. Going essentially .500 against good competition and winning between two-thirds and three-fourths of games against everyone else is what you would expect from a mid-tier playoff team.
The 76ers will not have much of a chance to beat back the narrative over the rest of the regular season. Philadelphia has, by far, the easiest remaining strength of schedule in the NBA, with just four games remaining against that group of “playoff” teams. So while people will focus on that handful of games, by sheer numbers, how the 76ers perform against the Grizzlies, Hawks, Magic, Nets, and Mavericks will play the biggest role in where the team slots into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
In the end, Philadelphia’s success against one team — whomever the 76ers face in the first round of the playoffs — will have an outsized impact on how the season gets remembered. That’s the price a team pays for moving from trying to lose games and collect lottery balls to trying to win them and make a push for the playoffs. A small sample size of four to seven games in late April swings the pendulum from an offseason of building anticipation or one of slight disappointment. With the 76ers right around .500 against those possible playoff opponents, it may come down to one game in either direction.
Ultimately, the best news of all for 76ers fans is that Joel Embiid just celebrated his 24th birthday Friday night. Ben Simmons is 21 years old and Dario Saric is 23. Markelle Fultz is only 19 and just had a really good-looking eight seconds of pregame shooting footage featured on social media. Don’t forget Philadelphia’s tremendous cap space situation and its potential to land LeBron James or another top free agent. Even if there is a slight bit of truth to the narrative about Philadelphia struggling against good teams, it’s not likely to be a problem for long.