PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers don’t have to wait for their turn. This is their turn. Special talent can skip steps. It laughs at the line, can make it behind the velvet rope, zip past security and find a spot in the VIP section and get bottle service without an invitation.
Joel Embiid gets annoyed when he hears the 76ers referred to as a team of the future, because in his mind there is no better time than the present. And after the 76ers defeated the Miami Heat 104-91 on Tuesday to complete their five-game annihilation — and claim the franchise’s first playoff series victory since 2012 — it almost felt silly to put a ceiling on this team. The 76ers have already exceeded expectations, already defied how young teams are supposed to handle prosperity. They leave nothing to chance and refuse to get complacent because what they want is well within their grasp.
“Looking at everybody else and looking at ourselves, I just see an opportunity because I think we have a special team,” Embiid said. “We feel like we’re unstoppable and we can get whatever we want to. That’s the goal and we’re going to do what it takes to get there.”
Embiid believes “our time is now” and that they have a chance to make it happen. The Eastern Conference hasn’t been this wide open in more than a decade, perhaps all the way back to 2007, when LeBron James was a 22-year-old wunderkind lugging a mediocre supporting cast to the NBA Finals. The year before, Dwyane Wade was only in his third season when he put Shaquille O’Neal on his back and bum-rushed the Dallas Mavericks for an NBA title.
“Sometimes an organization gets lucky and gets to draft someone special. These guys got to draft more than one person who is special,” Wade, after perhaps the last game of his brilliant career, said of Embiid and Ben Simmons. “It definitely can happen right away when you have the right group around certain individuals. They built a great team. When you have great individual players, it doesn’t matter how old they are, they can do some special things.”
Why should the 76ers be intimidated by what remains? They will arguably have the two best, or two of the three best, players on their side in either the conference semifinals or conference finals. They have been obliterating opponents for well over a month — winning 20 of their last 21 games — with a relentless defense and an offense that beats teams with Simmons’ speed and Embiid’s power. They have won without Embiid and appeared downright frightening with him. And coach Brett Brown contends they still haven’t peaked, which is hard to argue when Embiid just played his first home playoff game and is admittedly rusty after recovering from a fractured orbital bone.
Few teams go from garbage to glory in no time, but it isn’t unprecedented. O’Neal and Penny Hardaway — the center-point guard combination that has drawn the most comparisons to Embiid and Simmons — were only in their second season together when they led the Orlando Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan stopped whiffing at minor league pitching but hadn’t knocked off enough rust from his game to fend off the ready-before-its-time team.
Canvassing the current state of the East, the 76ers find themselves in a place where there is no prohibitive favorite, with flaws and frailties abounding in the other teams that could emerge. The Toronto Raptors were the best team through the course of the regular season but still have to overcome some of the past playoff ghosts that continue to haunt them. The Boston Celtics remain a gritty, overachieving bunch that coach Brad Stevens will always have prepared to compete. But they are missing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, whose absences are also felt by two other franchises this time of year. James hasn’t surrendered the title of the league’s best player, but he is easily on the worst team since he returned to Cleveland, the worst team since he made that first Finals soirée. He no longer has Irving to relieve him from some of the scoring and playmaking duties, yet benefits from the blind faith granted to his greatness and past success.
It doesn’t matter that the 76ers won 10 games two years ago or 28 games last season, because most of the players who had to endure all of that losing are either on other teams or out of the league all together. They’ve been replaced by veterans who have accepted and thrived in their roles. Philadelphia was 25-25 after losing in Indiana on Feb. 3 and has gone 31-5, with Brown giving his squad new challenges each time his players have proven to be accelerated learners. If not for a Wade Hall of Fame moment in Game 2, this team could’ve completed a sweep and been waiting on their second-round foe riding a 20-game winning streak.
“We’ve changed our goal now, like, four times,” veteran guard JJ Redick said afterward. “First it was make the playoffs, then maybe we can win 50 games, and then it was home court, and then it was third seed. I remember talking to a couple of people in our front office about getting a first-round victory. We’re not satisfied. This group is still hungry. We want more.”
The 76ers have the talent, but it’s well known that more is required to make a deep playoff run and come away with the ultimate prize. The Heat shoved, slapped and elbowed the 76ers just enough to understand the physicality of the postseason. But the response to some of those extracurricular activities spoke volumes about their maturity and toughness. Simmons absorbed most of the blows but he either walked away, stood his ground or found a way — within the rules — for some payback, such as a vicious, shoulder-lean screen on Wade.
“I’m ready,” Simmons said, in response to a question about what he’d learned this series.
The reaction to Tuesday’s victory felt slightly over the top, with a fan base that suffered through some extra lean years celebrating as if a banner would hang after the first round. Embiid picked up comedian Kevin Hart and lifted him like a newborn baby. Meek Mill, fresh off his release from prison, hung outside the locker room. Inside, Redick handed Brown a mini-Liberty Bell to ring and players poured beverages over the coach who endured every beat-down and head-burying losing streak of The Process and has now won his first playoff series. But the mood afterward was of a team that has enjoyed this little sip of success and now wants to guzzle a whole keg.
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