Unlike last year, Sixers know there's real stakes for this finale against Nets

Unlike last year, Sixers know there's real stakes for this finale against Nets originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The complexion of this year’s Sixers-Nets season finale is quite different than last year’s 82nd game.

Back then, Doc Rivers was the Sixers’ head coach and cracking jokes about The Masters before a game with no stakes.

On Sunday afternoon, Rivers will coach the Bucks in a game that might wind up determining whether the Sixers are part of the NBA’s play-in tournament. The Sixers beating Brooklyn and Milwaukee also topping the Magic is one of the permutations that would get the Sixers into the Eastern Conference’s top six.

The Sixers are seventh in the East through 81 games and have an identical record to the Pacers and Magic. So, if Orlando wins and Indiana handles the Hawks, an eighth consecutive Sixers victory wouldn't be enough to avoid the play-in.

Put simply, the Sixers won’t need to search for motivation Sunday. Every player has his own approach to tracking relevant results and hypotheticals. They all know one more win could have a sizable impact.

“We don’t get to be successful unless we take care of each and every game in front of us,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said Friday night following the Sixers’ victory over the Magic. “Obviously it’s good to know that stuff, but it just kind of adds extra pressure to a stressful league. … I’m just trying to go out there and perform in every game we play.”

Whatever’s next after Sunday, Tyrese Maxey wants the Sixers to still be trending up.

“For us, we have to be stepping in the right direction come playoffs, play-in, whatever the situation is,” Maxey said. “We want to be playing our best basketball. We want to be healthy. I think everybody being healthy, everybody coming back has been great for us. … That’s my biggest thing, and it’ll play out how it plays out.”

Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said Joel Embiid fully participated in the Sixers’ light practice Saturday after the star big man had a left knee injury scare the night prior.

Embiid was given his usual listing of questionable on the Sixers’ official injury report with a “left knee injury recovery” designation. De’Anthony Melton (back injury recovery) and KJ Martin (left great toe contusion) were also questionable. Robert Covington remained out because of a left knee bone bruise.

Brooklyn’s injury report contained many more names. The Nets listed nine players out, including Cameron Johnson, Dennis Schröder, Dorian Finney-Smith and Ben Simmons.

Though Brooklyn is just 32-49 this season, the Nets have gone 6-4 over their last 10 games. They went up 16 points early Friday night against the Knicks but ultimately fell despite Cam Thomas’ 41 points. Thomas scored 46 in last year’s finale, a blowout Sixers win that featured Mac McClung and Louis King.

“Obviously these guys are going to try to really play fast,” Nurse said of Brooklyn. “They’re going to get it up the floor fast, they’re going to spread the floor. They play in a five-out situation; they play small a lot. They’re going to try to drive and kick you and three-point shoot you to death. And listen, those are a couple concerning areas here lately. Take it as a compliment … our half-court defense, people don’t want to play against it very much.

“So they’re really making an effort to push the ball, to try to get anything they can in transition, make or miss. I thought we gave up a good chunk last night in transition, even after made baskets. … Getting our defensive transition set up is a concern, and we’re going to need it tomorrow. It’s going to be a good chance for us to do a little better on it tomorrow.”

By late afternoon, everything in the Eastern Conference will have fallen into place.

And unlike a year ago, the Sixers will certainly care how it all shakes out.