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Sixers Notebook: Clear path to playoffs

Posted by Eric Fisher On March 11

The Sixers will make the playoffs. Write it down.

The only question is which seed the Sixers will earn.

Not only do the Sixers have a six-game lead over the Pistons, the first team out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference, but their remaining schedule appears to be fairly easy. Of their remaining 18 games (starting with Sunday’s game against the Nets), the Sixers only have three games remaining against Eastern Conference teams in playoff position (the Cavaliers, Pacers and Bucks) and only one Western Conference team in playoff position (the Timberwolves). If we included the Nuggets, who are a half-game out of playoff position entering Sunday’s games, 13 of the Sixers’ remaining 18 games are against teams that are unlikely to qualify for the playoffs.

The Sixers’ remaining schedule includes two games against the Nets (21-45), two against the Hawks (20-46), two against the Hornets (29-38) and two against the Knicks (24-42). The Nets enter tonight’s (Sunday’s) game against the Sixers with a 2-8 mark in their last 10 games. The Knicks, who host the Sixers on Thursday, are 1-9 in their last 10 games, including losses in their last six.

The remaining schedule also includes games against the Magic (20-47) and Grizzlies (18-48), the bottom teams in each conference. The Grizzlies, who have lost 17 straight games, are making a major push for the No. 1 draft pick. Before we put all those games in the “W” column, we should remember that the Nets beat the Sixers on Jan. 31.

Who isn’t on the remaining schedule? The Raptors, Celtics, Wizards, Heat, Rockets, Warriors, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Thunder , Clippers and Spurs.

The downside to that is the Sixers (35-29), currently in sixth place in the conference, don’t have many games against the teams with which they are battling for playoff position. That magnifies the importance of Tuesday’s game (7 p.m.) against the Pacers (38-28) at Wells Fargo Center and games against the Cavaliers and Bucks during the final week of the regular season. The tradeoff, though, is that the Sixers are better than most of the teams remaining on their schedule, and many of those teams don’t have much incentive to win.

With the exception of the Raptors (48-17) and Celtics (48-17), the only two teams to have clinches playoff berths, the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff teams are bunched fairly tightly. Only 3½ games separate the Cavaliers (38-27), the current third seeds, and the Bucks (35-31), the current eighth seeds. Crammed in between the Cavaliers and Bucks are the Pacers, Wizards (38-29), Sixers and Heat (36-31).

Even though the schedule appears to be easy, the Sixers shouldn’t coast to the finish. Facing the Raptors or Celtics – or even the Cavaliers – in the first round would be a far more daunting task than facing the Pacers or Wizards.

The easy remaining schedule presents a golden opportunity for the Sixers. The question is whether they will take advantage of that opportunity.


EMBIID’S ENDURANCE: One area of concern for the Sixers is Joel Embiid’s stamina. After playing 31 games last season after sitting out his first two years in the NBA, Embiid has played 53 games this season.

Embiid has scored 20 points just once in his past five games after scoring at least 23 in the first four games after the All-Star break. He hasn’t shot better than 50 percent in any of those games, with the worst being a 5-for-18 performance during Thursday’s loss to the Heat. Another potential sign of fatigue is that Embiid hasn’t reached 10 rebounds in his last three games after doing so in five of the first six games after the All-Star break.

The Sixers may need to monitor Embiid’s minutes, and even game him a night or two off, down the stretch.


WELCOME ADDITION: For those who wished the Sixers never got rid of him, the signing of Ersan Ilyasova after he was released by the Hawks was good news. Since rejoining the Sixers, Ilyasova, who played 53 games for the Sixers last season after being acquired from the Hawks, has averaged 9.4 points while providing valuable minutes off the bench.

Ilyasova has a tendency to take bad shots, but he isn’t afraid to take shots at big moments and contributes on the backboards and on defense, where he consistently tries to take charges. Ilyasova gives head coach Brett Brown another shooter in the lineup and more options as he tries to find effective combintation.


COVINGTON’S STRUGGLES: Robert Covington scored 29 points in the season opener and reached at least 20 points in seven of the Sixers’ first 14 games. But his 22-point performance during Tuesday’s win over the Hornets was his first 20-point effort since Dec. 2.

The declarations that Covington was “back” proved to be premature. He was 0 for 10 from the field Thursday against the Heat, finishing with three points (all on free throws). He has scored in single digits in eight of the Sixers’ last 13 games.


ROAD WOES: The counter to the Sixers’ 13-game home winning streak is that they’ve lost eight of their last 11 road games.


HOT TEAMS: The Raptors have won seven straight games to take a 2½-game lead on the Celtics in the Atlantic Division. In the Western Conference, the Trail Blazers have won nine straight games to take over first place in the Northwest Division and move into position for the third seed in the West. The Northwest is the NBA’s most balanced division, with the Nuggets and Jazz (both 36-30) tied for last place, yet within a half-game of a playoff berth.


EARLY ELIMINATION: In case you were wondering, the Kings, Mavericks, Suns and Grizzlies have already been eliminated from playoff contention.


LOOKING AHEAD: The Sixers’ week is bookended by games against the Nets. They play in Brooklyn on Sunday (7:30 p.m.) and then host the Nets on Friday (7 p.m.). In between is a home game Tuesday (7 p.m.) against the Bucks and a road game on Thursday (7:30 p.m.) against the Knicks.

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