Sixers are still a championship caliber team despite brutal loss to Brooklyn

The Philadelphia 76ers are tied for the fourth-best odds with Milwaukee to win the NBA Championship at +650, according to Caesars Sportsbook. They are tied for the second-best odds with the Bucks to win the Eastern Conference at +330. 

It seems like Vegas still has a lot of confidence in the Sixers to vie for the NBA title after an awful performance against the Nets. Should we truly view Philadelphia as a championship contender right now?

A Good Start, Then A Big Tumble

For the first five games of the James Harden/Joel Embiid era, everything looked rosy as the team did not lose with the newly-paired superstars on the court. There were no major reasons not to be optimistic even though the Sixers had not faced one of the truly elite teams in the league yet. 

Philadelphia blew out a good Timberwolves team, scored a comeback win over the Cavaliers, beat the Knicks in the manner they were supposed to beat them, and then downed one of the better teams in the East with a decisive win over the Bulls. 

The Sixers were still meshing as a team when they headed into Thursday night’s marquee matchup with the Nets, but they had already given us every reason to expect a tenacious, intense battle with Brooklyn on their home floor. 

Instead, Harden is in the crosshairs of much criticism and concern after Philadelphia was embarrassed on its home floor by Brooklyn, 129-100, in a game that was never contested or close. Harden’s biggest detractors have often pointed out his tendency to melt in big moments, and it happened again in a highly-anticipated showdown. 

James Harden’s Struggles Drag The Philadelphia 76ers Down

Harden certainly deserves a heavy amount of blame for the terrible Philadelphia meltdown, as he missed 14 of 17 shots from the field and finished with just 11 points and five assists. His negative effect on the Sixers extended beyond just those numbers, though. Harden is a crux of these new-look 76ers, and when he is playing flat and is looking tentative, Philadelphia is going to be in a lot of trouble. 

The Nets effectively put the game away in the first quarter, racing out to a 40-23 lead that would only balloon thereafter. Harden looked unsettled as a shooter, especially since he was not getting to the foul line, and he also looked very shaky directing the flow of the offense. The Sixers were erratic in their ball movement and shot selection in the half-court game and had no opportunities to run because the Nets were dominating on their end of the court. 

Harden and Embiid both dealt with double teams, and while Embiid made several trips to the foul line like he always does, there was nothing else positive going on around him. Tyrese Maxey, who had been a key benefactor of the Harden/Embiid pairing in their first five games together, totally disappeared, scoring a season-low four points. He could not get good looks with the offense bogged down, and Maxey had no opportunities to finish on the break or penetrate. 

Tobias Harris scored 16 points, but he was not involved much early when it counted most. The Sixers were reduced to seeing Embiid battle for what he could down low, and there was no help for him, especially on the outside. The Sixers shot 32.3 percent from the field and missed 22 of 36 attempts in the loss. 

Defensively, Philadelphia was sliced up every possible way by Brooklyn, which shot 56 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three-point range. The Nets distributed the ball well and connected from everywhere on the floor while also adding some in-your-face moments on the break. 

Who Are The Real Philadelphia 76ers?

So, is it time to panic? Or was this just one game that lessons can be learned from?

The Sixers’ next major test in the Eastern Conference will come on March 21 at home vs. Miami, and they will face Phoenix less than a week later and Milwaukee on March 29. Between now and then, Philadelphia must fine-tune what ailed them vs. the Nets and get into a groove that will not be as easily disrupted as the initial five-game run was. 

From what we have seen from the 76ers over the first six games in the post-blockbuster deal era, this team is capable of some high-level play while also hitting on some stunning lows. While the loss to the Nets made the team’s fans want to cover their eyes, we must keep in mind that this is still a team that needs some more time to gel and perform at a consistently high level. The terrible level of play against Brooklyn was befuddling, yet also served as a reminder that the Sixers aren’t quite ready to always look like a powerhouse. 

But there will still be lingering concerns about off nights from Harden and how the rest of the team could sag when he is not performing at his best. Will Maxey be able to regularly play at a high level when it counts most during the postseason? Is there enough quality depth on the bench? Can Harris start to ramp up his game on offense? Are more significant defensive lapses ahead against offensively potent teams? 

Good teams beat who they are supposed to beat, and the Sixers have already shown they can do that, so credit is due there. But the best teams don’t fizzle badly when the lights are the brightest. Harden still must quiet the criticism in that regard, and if he is off his game when the lights are the brightest, they will ultimately be shut off for the 76ers in the postseason. 

We will revisit the Sixers after they face the Heat, Suns, and Bucks later this month. We will have a better picture of how to project them for the playoffs by then. The team does have time to bounce back from an awful loss and use it as a turning point to better times ahead. 

For now, the Sixers have not yet earned the right to be considered a true favorite to win the Eastern Conference. But they can still show us they are worthy of the Vegas odds in the weeks ahead. 

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