On Monday night, Joel Embiid took the court for his 58th game of the season. That's an interesting number when you consider that, prior to this season, the 23-year-old big man had played in just 59 games total since graduating from high school in 2013. There were 28 games in his one season at Kansas, in 2013-14, and 31 games last season as an NBA rookie, and that's it.
All of this is worth noting given the admission that Embiid's rookie teammate made prior to the Sixers' 108-94 win over the Hornets on Monday night. Ben Simmons was sitting at his locker talking about the team's recent struggles on defense when he suggested that some of the problem might be a lack of focus. He didn't use the words, but it certainly sounded as if he was describing the infamous "rookie wall."
"Physically, I feel fine," he said, "but mentally, it's a little draining."
It was a reminder of the challenge that awaits the Sixers as they recalibrate their goal from simply qualifying for the playoffs to winning once they get there. In Simmons, Embiid, and Dario Saric, they are paced by three players who, until Embiid's birthday last week, were each under the age of 24. Last year, in Saric's rookie season, we saw the toll that an 82-game season can have on the uninitiated, his legs looking at times like a weary boxer's at the end of a 12-round fight. Now, it is Simmons and Embiid who are in the midst of the longest seasons of their lives.
This might be the biggest reason to wonder how this team will hold up in a seven-game series. After Monday night's win over the Hornets, their magic number to clinch a playoff berth was four. At 39-30, they are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, albeit with only 1.5 games standing between them and the third-place Cavs. But whomever they face, and wherever Game 1 is played, with the possible exception of Milwaukee, they will be matched up against a veteran-laden roster with plenty of playoff muscle memory. That could mean LeBron James and Kevin Love, or DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry, or John Wall and Bradley Beal, or Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo, or Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic.
"I mean, let's call it for what it is," Sixers coach Brett Brown said Monday. "This is foreign territory for a lot of our guys. We can talk all about Dario playing at Efes, and Ben playing at LSU, Joel playing at Kansas — it's not the NBA playoffs. … The NBA 82 regular season vs. the NBA playoffs is a different sport. It's played a little differently, it's reffed a little differently. … .And the young guys will experience that, and you get a little smarter and better and hardened as time goes on, but it is not for the faint or weary. It's a man's world, especially, when you get into a seven-game series, and it's different."
Preparing his young core for the rigors of the postseason is something that has occupied a prominent corner of Brown's mind since the all-star break. He has seen some concerning defensive lapses in recent weeks, and at Monday's shootaround he met with his team to stress the importance of the proper mentality as the playoffs grow larger on the horizon.
The Sixers entered the night with the sixth-best defensive efficiency in the league, holding opponents to an average of 106.3 points per 100 possessions, but that number was 110.7 points per hundred possessions in their previous 13 games, the eighth-highest mark in the league. During that stretch, opponents were shooting .456 from the field and .402 from downtown, hitting an average of 10.9 three-pointers per night. In their first 55 games of the season, opponents were shooting .436 overall and .333 from downtown.
Against the Hornets, they looked like their old selves for all but the second quarter, holding the Hornets to 37.6 percent shooting from the field, and 27.3 percent from downtown.
But it was the offensive end of the court where their promise burned brightest, with Embiid scoring 25 points (with 19 rebounds) and Simmons recording his ninth career triple- double. After a first half in which the Sixers shot just 40 percent from the field and entered the locker room trailing by seven points, Embiid took over in the third quarter, scoring 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting that included a trio of three-pointers from the top of the key.
Simmons, meanwhile, dished out 15 assists without committing a single turnover.
Yet even in the aftermath of victory, there was a reminder of the uncertainty that is inherent with this team. Asked about Embiid's nine turnovers, Brown pointed to the limited practice reps that Embiid sees because of the Sixers' desire to preserve his body, and the effect that has on his rhythm in the flow of a game. The balancing act is most pronounced with regard to the oft-injured big man, but it will extend to the rest of the team over these next few weeks.
After the game, Embiid said he felt great and downplayed the significance of his practice routine. Simmons, too, sounded unconcerned. But Brown saw plenty of playoff basketball during his time with the Spurs, and he knows that he is in the midst of a pivotal coaching challenge.