76ers take aim at Nets in hope for 1st NBA title since 1983
PHILADELPHIA - Can it be 40 years since Maurice Cheeks dunked and punctuated the Philadelphia 76ers’ sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers to win the 1983 NBA championship? Forty years since Moses Malone predicted a four-game sweep? Forty years since Julius Erving danced during a parade down Broad Street?
Since then, the 76ers have endured and trusted the Process. Charles Barkley came and went, so did Allen Iverson. There were some pretty good seasons, but mostly forgettable ones. The team hasn't advanced past the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs since 2001.
Dr. J took note and during a speech last month at a ceremony honoring the 1983 team, he told a packed house that the championship players were there not just to be recognized, but to "challenge this year’s team to make it happen." The basketball Hall of Famer added: "Forty years is way too long."
Joel Embiid, James Harden and the rest of the 54-win Sixers will try to snap the drought starting Saturday in Philly against the Brooklyn Nets in their first-round playoff series.
Though the 45-win Nets are expected to be nothing more than a speedbump for the Sixers, the second round will likely present a more pressing challenge should the Boston Celtics also advance.
Coach Doc Rivers said the third-seeded Sixers expect more than a second-round series win to consider their season a success.
"We’re focused on trying to win the finals," Rivers said. "That’s pressure."
Rivers has coached the Sixers in two straight second-round exits, including the infamous loss as the No. 1 seed in 2021 when they blew a 3-1 series lead to Atlanta and lost Game 7 at home.
Rivers insisted the Sixers are focused only on this season’s results and not how previous failures could affect the organization.
"If you set a high goal for yourself, there’s not a person alive that can say there’s no pressure to that," Rivers said. "It should be and we talked about that. Embrace it. Like this is a good thing. You have played yourself on a team that has pressure because I can name a bunch of teams that have no pressure. You know where you’re at right now? Golfing, on the beach."
Philly is a city moving past its history of sports mediocrity, considering the Phillies, Eagles and Union all reached their championship rounds this past season.
The Sixers could face an offseason of change if they don’t match their pro brethren and at least make the NBA Finals. Harden could decline an option in his contact and pursue a max contract via free agency. Rivers could be on the hot seat. And who knows how many more legitimate chances the 29-year-old Embiid would get to win a title.
End the streak at 40 years and the 76ers won’t have much worry about what’s ahead.
BIG SCORER, BIG ASSISTER
Embiid was the NBA’s scoring champion for a second consecutive year, averaging 33.1 points per game.
Harden reclaimed the assist title, averaging 10.7 per game this season. It’s his second time finishing as the leader in assists per game; he also did it in 2016-17 when he was with Houston.
Both players say they’re ready for the playoffs after fighting injuries late in the season.
"I’m extremely prepared to play 40 minutes," Harden said.
BRIDGES GOES BACK
The Nets' Mikal Bridges attended Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, then played three seasons at Villanova. He was then drafted by the 76ers with the No. 10 pick in the 2018 draft, but they dealt his rights to Phoenix.
He said playing his hometown team doesn’t mean anything extra.
"No, it’s just playoffs and it’s time to lock in and take it up another notch no matter who it is," Bridges said. "Obviously I’m back home, played in that gym a lot, but no, I would have the same energy, same aggressiveness no matter what team we played."
Nic Claxton will probably need to have a big series if the Nets have any hopes of making things difficult for Embiid. The center averaged 12.6 points and 9.2 rebounds in his best season, and his 55 games with multiple blocked shots were the most by an NBA player since Rudy Gobert had 56 in 2018-19. He was second in the league in blocks (2.5 per game) and field goal percentage (70.5%).