For as difficult as the season has been for the 76ers, they are still very much in the playoff race.
The truth is the Sixers have a tough time believing it, too.
With a victory in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, the Sixers can head into the All-Star break just two games out for the No. 8 playoff spot. Yeah, sure, the No. 8 seed is hardly ideal since it likely means a first-round matchup against the Miami Heat. But with all the Sixers (22-28) have been through over the first 50 games of the season, to be just two games out is a minor miracle.
The really tough part is for coach Doug Collins to figure out what type of energy his team will have in the game against the Bucks.
“I don’t know with this group,” Collins said. “That’s the thing with me is trying to figure who this group is.”
How difficult has it been for the Sixers this season? Just check the injury report. Andrew Bynum has missed the first 50 games while Jrue Holiday, Thad Young and Nick Young all have missed a handful of games for one injury or another. Jason Richardson, the veteran leader of the team, is out for the season with torn cartilage in his left knee.
"We have to have a good game here, going into the break,” Collins said. "This has been a taxing year. We've talked about the high we came off last year, and after what we did in the offseason we thought we would be a lot better. It just seems like at every turn, we sort have been kicked in the gut, from Andrew not being able to play all year, to J-Rich now being out for the year. We lost Swaggy (Nick Young) for a while early. We lost Jrue for a while early. Now we lost Thad and arguably are playing without three starters. But you know what? There is no sympathy in this business."
Nor should there be. After all, injuries happen every year for all teams. Still, Collins pointed out that the Sixers have been particularly unlucky on top of so many players missing games. According to Collins, the Sixers have not stolen away one game that they should have lost. There hasn’t been a last-second shot to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat, nor has there been a furious fourth quarter comeback just in the nick of time to win one, says Collins.
In other words, the Sixers have had to earn every one of their 22 wins.
“We have not stolen any games this year, but we let a few slip away,” Collins said. “Those hurt. I thought we had a mental letdown in Phoenix in a back-to-back after beating the Lakers. I thought we had a mental letdown in Cleveland when they didn’t have Kyrie Irving, and Jeremy [Pargo] hit us for 28. And then we let two games slip away from us against Memphis and San Antonio. We have no games that we’ve stolen. To me, we’ve had four slip away and if you take those four games, what are we, 26-24? That’s in the playoffs. That’s how fragile it is. We haven’t had any of those games this year.”
But fresh off a 5-3 homestand that ended when the Los Angeles Clippers blasted the Sixers on Monday night, Collins’ crew is looking ahead to a surprising opportunity. A win in Milwaukee is one of those that could propel the Sixers through the second half, says Holiday, the team’s lone All-Star.
It’s not quite a playoff-type of game, but the showdown in Milwaukee is going to be significant.
“It’s kind of a do-or-die game,” Holiday said. “If it comes down to the end of the season and it’s us or them, these are the games we’re going to have to get.”
A loss to the Bucks could carry a bit more weight. If the Sixers lose, the Bucks win the season series, which also serves as the tiebreaker in case of a tie in the standings. Additionally, a loss puts the Sixers in a bit of a hole in the standings, too.
“It’s really a two-game swing either way,” Spencer Hawes said. “We have to realize that and can’t be looking forward to the break.”
It works the other way, too. A win in Milwaukee coupled with the return of some big pieces could be just the kind of break the Sixers need. To head into the break just two games out and 31 left in the season -- with Bynum possibly returning by the end February and Thad Young’s return from a hamstring strain just around the corner -- isn’t all that bad of a spot, come to think of it.
Nevertheless, the Sixers are going to have to do the work.
“That’s the awesome thing about being in the East,” Holiday said. “Even though Boston went on that winning streak, anything can happen, especially in the second half of the season. We can definitely give our best to get those two spots.”