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Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Sixers Notebook: Surging toward playoffs

Posted by Eric Fisher On February 25

The Sixers are surging. After dropping to .500 (25-25) with four losses in five games, the Sixers have won seven games in a row.

Not only have the Sixers put some space between themselves and the Pistons (28-30), the first team outside of the playoff picture, but they join the Wizards, Pacers and Bucks as Eastern Conference teams with 25 losses. The Sixers (32-25) are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference because the Bucks have one more win and the Packers and Wizards each have two more wins, but the Sixers are closer to the middle of the playoff picture than they are to missing the playoffs.

Not only are the Sixers winning, but they’re winning in impressive fashion. Five of the seven wins during the current streak have been by double digits.

The two victories that weren’t by double digits were also impressive. The 104-102 victory over the Heat and the 116-115 triumph over the Bulls, games sandwiched around the All-Star break, were both “gut check” games. The Sixers beat the Heat without center Joel Embiid, who sat out with a sore right ankle. The victory over the Bulls required some late-game heroics, including a steal of an inbounds pass by Embiid, setting up the tying and game-winning free throws by Ben Simmons with 5.6 seconds remaining.

Another impressive aspect of the Sixers’ winning streak is that different players have stepped to the forefront. The first and last games of the streak featured dominating performances by Embiid, who had 27 points and 13 rebounds in the streak-starting win over the Wizards and produced 28 and 14 during Saturday’s 116-105 win over the Magic. Embiid also had 29 points and 16 rebounds during a victory over the Clippers. Embiid was also terrific during Thursday’s victory over the Bulls, but it was Simmons, with a career-high 32 points and 11 assists, not to mention the tying and winning free throws, who led the way.

With Embiid sidelined, Simmons had 12 rebounds and 10 assists during the victory over the Heat, but its Dario Saric who led the Sixers with 19 points. Saric also led the Sixers in scoring with 24 points the previous game against the Knicks, although the headlines were stolen by guard T.J. McConnell coming off the bench to post a triple double.

The Sixers have put themselves in good position not only to qualify for the playoffs, but to secure a good seed.

Before we get too excited, however, it should be noted that six of the seven teams the Sixers defeated during this winning streak are in eighth place in their respective conferences or out of the playoff picture. The only exception was the Wizards, who were missing guard John Wall. Six of the seven games were also at Wells Fargo Center.

The young Sixers sometimes seem to spend too much time reading their press clippings, which lead to stretches like the four-losses-in-five-games stretch that preceded the current winning streak. The test for the Sixers will be to avoid those types of stretches as they try to extend their winning streak and continue their playoff push.

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MISSING PIECE: The addition of Marco Belinelli has already paid off for the Sixers. He scored 17 points in his Sixers debut, a 104-102 triumph over the Heat just before the All-Star break. He struggled to score five points Thursday against the Bulls, but rebounded with 15 points during Saturday’s win over the Magic. The 31-year-old Belinelli provides the Sixers with a veteran presence and another outside shooter, a need that has grown with the increasing inconsistency from outside of Robert Covington.

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OUT OF THIS WORLD: The Sixers’ young trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric helped the World team defeat Team USA, 155-124, in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend. Simmons made all five of his shots from the field and dished out a game-high 13 assists in 23 minutes, and Saric, who made 4 of 7 shots from 3-point range, added 18 points in 21 minutes.

After missing the game before the All-Star break with right ankle soreness, Embiid only played nine minutes during the Rising Stars Challenge. He may have been saving himself for Saturday’s Skills competition (he was eliminated in the second round) and Sunday’s All-Star Game.

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AVOIDING THE HEAT: After participating in all three events during All-Star weekend, Joel Embiid is probably fortunate that the Sixers pulled out a 104-102 victory over the Heat without him in the game before the All-Star break. If the Sixers had lost the game Embiid sat out with a sore right ankle, there definitely would have been some grumbling about his participation in three nights of All-Star activities.

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PLAYOFF PROPOSAL: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of seeding all 16 teams in the playoffs rather than doing the seeding within each conference. Although it’s an interesting idea, this would render the conference standings relatively unimportant. The conference seeding already diminishes the importance of the divisional standings, but, aside from determining which teams make the conference, the conference standings would become less important if the teams are seeded in the playoffs without regard to conference.

Another reason not to make this change is that seeding teams from both conferences together would, over time, reduce rivalries. One way in which rivalries develop is from having teams meet frequently during the regular season and then during the playoffs. Are the Sixers ever going to develop a rivalry with the Jazz? No. But they could develop one with the Bucks if they meet them in the playoffs a few times.

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ROCKETS SHOOT TO TOP: The Rockets have won 11 straight games (through Saturday’s games), moving to the top of the Western Conference with the NBA’s best record (45-13). The defending-champion Warriors (46-14) are percentage points behind.

Meanwhile, the Spurs, with the fourth-best record in the Western Conference, don’t expect to have forward Kawhi Leonard back this season, according to head coach Gregg Popovich.

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CHANGE AT THE TOP: The Raptors (41-17) have passed the Celtics (42-19) and moved into first place in the Atlantic Division. That battle will have important implications for playoff seeding. The second-place team would drop to at least third in the playoff seeding.

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HTTING THE ROAD: After playing six of their previous seven games on the road, the Sixers will play eight of their next nine games on the road. A busy week starts Sunday (8 p.m.) against the Wizards. That is followed by games Tuesday (7:30 p.m.) against the Heat and Thursday (8 p.m.) against the revamped Cavaliers. The Sixers return home Friday (7 p.m.), their only home game during this nine-game stretch, to host the Hornets. They return to the road next Sunday (March 4) against the Bucks (8 p.m.).

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