NBA playoffs: How a 76ers team going nowhere reinvented itself in midstream

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How a 76ers team going nowhere reinvented itself in midstream originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

This is not the 76ers team that began the year. Not even close.

With a miserable two-point home loss to the Hawks on Dec. 23, the 76ers stumbled into Christmas 16-16, just another middle-of-the-pack team seemingly headed for mediocrity.

Two months into the season, the 76ers were sitting in the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference, and it sure seemed like they just hadn’t recovered from that excruciating seven-game conference semifinal series loss to the Hawks.

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Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz were starters, Isaiah Joe, Charles Bassey and Tyler Johnson joined Tyrese Maxey off the bench, and there wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about.

Tobias Harris was shooting 46 percent from the field. Tyrese Maxey was shooting 36 percent from 3. Shake Milton was the 76ers’ 5th-leading scorer. Georges Niang was shooting well under 40 percent from 3.

Even Joel Embiid seemed to have regressed to 22.4 points after averaging 28.5 a year ago and was shooting just 45 percent from the floor.

That was your 76ers team on Dec. 25, and it was tough to get excited about them.

Over the next four months, that team became this team, and it’s been a remarkable transformation.

Because this 76ers team that’s on the brink of sweeping the Raptors out of the playoffs, this 76ers team that’s playing with so much chemistry and unity and togetherness, has barely played together.

The trade with the Nets that brought James Harden to Philly and rid us forever of Ben Simmons – along with Seth Curry and Andre Drummond – was the most obvious change, but really this lineup and this rotation and this roster has been evolving for a few months now.

Since Christmas, Harris has become a more efficient shooter, rebounder and passer. Embiid has gone from 22.4 points per game to 33.1 and 45 percent to 52 percent from the floor. Maxey has morphed from a mediocre long-range shooter to one of the best in the NBA, from a promising 6th man to a breathtaking star in the making. Niang has improved to 42 percent from deep. Korkmaz doesn’t play anymore. Paul Reed has replaced DeAndre Jordan as the backup five. Defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle has seen his minutes plunge, even in the home games he’s eligible for. And of course Harden has come in, and it hasn’t always been pretty, but what he lacks in quickness and shooting he delivers in passing and playmaking.

The 76ers essentially took a brand-new team into the playoffs, and they’re playing some of their best basketball of the year with a lineup that’s been together for six weeks.

After that 16-16 start, the 76ers went 35-15 the rest of the regular season, the 4th-best record in the entire NBA over the final 50 games (behind the Suns, Grizzlies and Mavericks). Add the first few playoff games and they’re 38-15 since Christmas.

The more this team changed, the more this team evolved, the better it played.

Now, I don’t want to get too carried away here because the Raptors team the 76ers are about to eliminate is missing one of its best players in Scottie Barnes. And winning first-round series hasn’t been the 76ers’ problem lately. It’s winning the next round. The 76ers have lost five straight conference semifinal series, a streak that dates back to the Pistons series in 2003, Larry Brown’s last year as head coach. They lost to the Celtics under Doug Collins in 2012, back-to-back against the Celtics in 2018 and Raptors in 2019 under Brett Brown and last year’s nightmare against the Hawks under Doc Rivers.

The last 11 times the 76ers have reached the playoffs, they’ve lost in either the first or second round.

So we’re certainly not going to sit here and celebrate a 3-0 lead in a first-round series over a banged-up 5 seed.

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But this sure seems like a team that’s grown in some very important ways over the past four months. Doc Rivers can drive you crazy, but he’s done a commendable job making sure all these new pieces and new parts and new roles have blended together in a positive way and finding rotations that make the best possible use of guys who haven’t played a ton of basketball together.

That’s not easy to do on the fly down the stretch with barely any practice days.

This is when you want to be playing your best basketball, and the 76ers are doing that with a team that until the past month or two didn’t even exist.