Don’t look surprised: The Sixers are back in the playoff hunt

After four wins in five games the formula is simple: Beat bad teams, then steal a few like Wednesday night.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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After the Sixers beat the San Antonio Spurs 112-106 Wednesday night, head coach Brett Brown hugged everyone in sight like it was his first NBA victory. In a way perhaps it was, as Brown beat his mentor, Gregg Popovich, for the first time in his career. The win broke a string of 12-straight losses against the Spurs, and it pulled the Sixers back up to one game under .500 through 37 games.

The Spurs hardly had their full complement of stars, as Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard rested on the second night of a back-to-back. And yet, a win is a win, and the Sixers need as many as they can get if they hope to fight for a spot in the playoffs.

At 18-19, the Sixers are half a game out of the eighth playoff spot, currently held by the Indiana Pacers. There is a lot of basketball left to play, surely, but every remaining game for the Sixers matters. There can’t be any nights off — even in games where Joel Embiid is forced to take the night off — as Brown’s team looks to be in a protracted battle for one of the final Eastern Conference playoff spots.

There was a time, earlier in the season, when it looked like the Sixers had the talent to earn a No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the East, but the run of two wins in 12 games through most of December quashed that hope, relegating the Sixers to the outside of the playoff picture, looking in. And yet, three straight wins and four out of the last five have righted the ship as the year turned to 2018. Things are back on track. Mostly.

After Wednesday’s win, guard JJ Redick was asked about the team’s goal of making the playoffs, and how he sees their chances after the recent stretch. “Just keep plugging away,” he told Molly Sullivan of NBC Sports Philly. “We’ve played through the toughest part of our schedule. We’ve had some injuries, we won four out of our last five. I like where we’re headed.”

Winning four out of five, Redick and the Sixers should like where they are headed. He’s right about that. Only…he can’t be right about getting through the toughest part of the schedule. Just look at the next four games.

The Sixers host Detroit Friday and while they’ve beaten the Pistons twice this year, Detroit is 20-16 on the season and currently holding the No. 6 seed in the East.

After Friday, there’s nearly a week off between games as the team travels to London to “host” the 31-10 Boston Celtics, who are 2-0 against Philly. Three days later, the Sixers are back home on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to host Toronto. The Raptors are 26-10 and have already beaten the Sixers three times this season. Then it’s a trip up to Boston before hosting Giannis Antetokounmpo and the 20-16 Milwaukee Bucks.

This might be the toughest five game stretch of the entire season, so if the Sixers do hope to make the playoffs, they’ll need to keep up the momentum against some of the top teams in the league.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

That’s been an issue this season. At 18-19, the Sixers have just nine wins against teams that are currently .500 or better. Things change throughout the NBA season — a Detroit win early in the year didn’t look nearly as impressive as it would now, while Orlando, for example, started the season 6-2 and are currently 12-27 — but as the NBA season nears the halfway point, where teams are in the standings is a decent indicator of what they’ve been and what they’ll be. As Redick pointed out, the Sixers have (again) been riddled with injuries, so fortunes could change as they get healthy. Jerryd Bayless, T.J. McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot logged a combined 51 minutes Wednesday night. Imagine how much different the Sixers will look when Markelle Fultz is getting even half of those.

All that is a caveat to this: The Sixers are 8-14 against teams with a winning record and 10-5 against teams at .500 or below.

But a closer look at the schedule illustrates two bigger problems: They’re losing to all the best teams, and aren’t beating enough of the worst. Wins over Houston and a depleted San Antonio are great, but the Sixers are just 3-10 against teams with a winning percentage currently at .600 or better. The overtime win at Minnesota in the midst nine losses in 10 games in mid December is the only other victory against a team currently at .600 or better.

What’s more, while the Sixers are beating up on bad teams, they’re just 5-4 against really bad teams. There are 10 teams currently at .400 or worse in the standings. So far, the Sixers have only played nine games against those teams and they’re 5-4.

The good news for the Sixers is that after this four-game stretch over the next two weeks, they do get games at Memphis and home to Chicago, each with a current winning percentage under .400. Following those games, the Sixers close out January with four road games, starting in San Antonio before heading to OKC, Milwaukee and Brooklyn.

At 18-19, it’s hard to look at the Sixers next 11 games and see a team that will get out of this stretch with a winning record. Even with just one back-to-back in the month and several days off between some games, the quality of opponent is a serious concern.

That said, in February the Sixers will play just one team currently in the top five playoff spots in either conference — Washington, twice — and have a run of 34 games from the start of February through the end of the regular season in which they’ll play a team currently in the top five in either conference just seven times.

January got off to a great start for the Sixers, and while the rest of the month could prove troublesome — despite what Redick says — the schedule does open up a lot after that. The Sixers could stay well positioned for a late-season run, as the goal in the season’s final 45 games should be to get 27 wins. That’s a .600 winning percentage over the second half of the season, yes, but it would give Brown’s team 45 wins, which should guarantee a spot in the postseason.

Over the last four years, the No. 8 seed in the East has won 41, 44, 38 and 38 games, respectively. So there’s a chance the Sixers could go .500 the rest of the way, finish at 41-41 and still make the playoffs.

But that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal is much simpler. Beat the teams they’re supposed to beat, win just over half the games against middle-of-the-pack teams and hope to steal a few over teams like the Spurs, especially when they rest their stars.

The Sixers have 45 games remaining, and 24 are against teams currently .500 or better. But a lot of those 21 other games are against really bad teams. Win those — or at least most — and even at 10-14 against the better NBA teams, the Sixers will be back in the playoffs for sure.

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