Sixers are better than all but the best teams




 

Generally speaking, there have been two types of wins for the Sixers this season: ones where their stars bail out their shooters and ones where their shooters bail out their stars. It's felt pretty rare that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have dominated inside the arc at the same time that Robert Covington and JJ Redick have rained down holy hellfire from beyond it. But more often than not, at least one of those tandems is making the magic happen, and making Philly tough to outpace for 48 minutes. Last night, it was mostly the latter, as Covington hit six huge triples to break out of his week-long shooting slump, and help the Sixers earn a 108-103 win over the Detroit Pistons (and newly ranked Process foe Andre Drummond).

It wasn't the best of nights for Embiid and Simmons. Embiid ended with respectable numbers of 25 and 10, also fouling out Drummond (who dared return fire over JoJo's trash-talking pregame and was subsequently booed all night at WFC) while posting them, but he also shot an unsightly 7 for21, with six turnovers and no assists, as he became perhaps a tad myopic in his Drummond demolition. And Simmons was uncharacteristically reserved on offense, scoring just five points on six shots - both career lows - and only handing out six assists in 39 minutes. What seemed at halftime like it was going to be an easy Sixers win instead became a grind-it-out W, as Philly's third-quarter offense imploded and Detroit vaporized the 16-point halftime lead by the start of the fourth.

But Covington's 25 kept the Sixers afloat, as did a combined 35 from J.J. Redick (6-10 FG, 1-3 3PT) and Dario Saric (6-11 FG, 2-5 3PT). Though Redick has run scalding and frigid with his long-range shooting this season, he's starting to show some of the other things he can do to stay productive while frosty from deep - not only nailing twos off curls and step-ins, but moving the ball exceptionally, ending with a team- and personal season-high seven dimes last night. And Dario has really come on since Thanksgiving, averaging 18 and 8, shooting 53 percent from the field and filling in the gaps in the Sixers' offense with smart cuts, extra passes and second-chance-opportunity creation.

Though the Sixers' bench is struggling a little bit - particularly in the absence of unit anchor T.J. McConnell, who missed his second straight last night with a shoulder contusion - the starting lineup has proven capable of hanging with just about any opposing first five. Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid is an insane net plus-19 points per 100 possessions in 150 minutes of on-court time, according to Basketball-Reference, which is fourth-best in the whole league among lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together.

And that's sort of the point with the Sixers at this juncture of the season. Through 22 games, they've played about as insane a schedule as any team - 14 of their 22 games coming against teams currently with winning records, including a combined seven against the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics and Cavaliers - and they're still four games over .500, and beating pretty much every team except those four. The Pistons are 0-2 against the Sixers, and 14-6 against the rest of the NBA. The Sixers aren't good enough to hang with the league's true elite, but you have to like their chances against pretty much anyone else. A quarter through the season, and their only truly bad loss came in that absurd collapse to the Kings. It's disconcerting rooting for a team this reliable.

But when you have a first five like the Sixers do, stocked with franchise-caliber talents and championship-caliber supporting players, it's hardly surprising that you end up winning a lot of games. They won't be true contenders this season -- thr decisive 1-6 record against the league's real contenders should ably demonstrate as much -- but they're already in the tier just below that truly elite class, and with a couple easy-appearing games coming up on their schedule (home to the Suns and Lakers this week), their record may soon start to reflect it as well. Injury concerns are the only thing separating these Sixers from not only making the playoffs, but being a legitimate problem for their first-round opponent To anticipate that things might get even better than this in seasons to come - which, y'know, they probably should - feels damned greedy.

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