CHICAGO — If the 76ers have shown one thing through the years, it’s that winning an NBA title isn’t easy.
Their 191 victories since the start of the 2019-20 season rank second in the league behind the Milwaukee Bucks’ 204. Yet those regular-season fireworks have translated to second-round losses in the postseason, and none of the Sixers’ current players were born when they last won the title 40 seasons ago.
But on paper, this season’s squad has perhaps the best chance to win a championship since Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Co. defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in four games.
They boast an MVP frontrunner in Joel Embiid, a future Hall of Fame co-star in James Harden, one of league’s all-time winningest coaches in Doc Rivers, and arguably the best assemblages of role players in decades.
But to win, a team must also avoid injuries and have some luck — two areas in which the Sixers have struggled. Right now, Harden is listed as questionable with left Achilles soreness for Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Bulls. P.J. Tucker, who missed the past two games after twisting his left ankle, is also questionable. Meanwhile, Embiid has battled through injuries in the Sixers’ previous five postseason appearances.
And they were unlucky during the 2019 playoffs, their best opportunity to a win a title since 2001. Kawhi Leonard’s 15-foot fadeaway jumper at the buzzer lifted the Toronto Raptors to a 92-90 victory over the Sixers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. The high-arcing shot hit the rim four times before dropping into the basket.
Fast-forward to this season, and the Sixers (48-23), who clinched a playoff spot Tuesday night when the Brooklyn Nets lost to the Atlanta Hawks, are regarded as the NBA’s hottest team even after Monday’s 109-105 double-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers are third in the East — three games behind the first-place Bucks (51-20) with 11 games remaining. They currently hold the tiebreaker over Milwaukee after winning two of this season’s first three meetings. The teams will meet for the fourth and final time on April 2 at Fiserv Forum.
It’s not entirely surprising that the Sixers have gotten the best of Milwaukee, the league’s best team. They also crushed the Denver Nuggets, the West’s top squad.
In fact, their 36-11 record since Dec. 9 is tops in the NBA, and before Monday’s loss, the Sixers were riding an eight-game winning streak. They’ll look to avenge that loss in Wednesday night’s rematch against the Bulls (34-37) at the United Center.
And Monday’s performance was an outlier the Sixers would love to erase. They committed 21 turnovers, which led to 24 points for Chicago.
“It’s not easy to win in this league,” Embiid said. “Like I said, you gotta take it one game at a time. You know, when we are at our best, we got a chance against everybody. Even when we’re not, we still got to find ways like [Monday], we weren’t good enough. So we just got to find ways to be at our best.”
Harden was far from his best as a shooter and ballhandler against the Bulls. He finished with a season-low five points on 2-for-14 shooting. It was his second-worst shooting performance of the season. He also committed five turnovers. On the positive side, he had a game-high 12 assists and seven rebounds.
After the game and prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Rivers revealed that Harden is dealing with a foot issue. The 10-time All-Star also missed Saturday’s road victory over the Indiana Pacers with injury management, and was previously held out of 14 games earlier this season with a strained tendon in his right foot.
Now, his status is up in the air for Wednesday’s game. One of their major linchpins, the Sixers will need Harden healthy for a deep postseason run.
For now, the Sixers’ focus is on getting their mojo back during this four-game road trip. After facing the Bulls, they’ll play the Golden State Warriors (Friday), Phoenix Suns (Saturday) and Denver Nuggets (Monday).
“We’re trying to find ways to get better every single game even if [they are] small,” Embiid said. “I thought [Monday] could’ve been better. You know it happens. You move on to the next one. You learn from it. Like I said, the biggest key is just staying together.”
The Sixers hope doing the little things, having their full roster available, and getting a few breaks will lead to an NBA title.