It’s been ages since we’ve shined up the spring playoffs crystal ball. The Flyers missed three of the past five Stanley Cup tourneys before this week. And the Sixers – well Ben Simmons was a 15-year-old Aussie, just choosing basketball over rugby, when they last went to the post-season.
Ah, but now in this City of Winners, both of the arena tenants are actually playing for high stakes. The talk is of parades, not lottery picks. And on the heels of the Eagles and Villanova, the collective fan base is more optimistic than it has been in three decades.
I can’t predict another confetti rain this June. But I do think one of these teams can enjoy an extended run at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers are currently the most exciting – and perhaps most dangerous – team in the NBA. Last Friday’s thriller over Cleveland (without Joel Embiid, of course), proved them capable of beating a top contender in a critical game. They’re coming down the stretch with a 14-game winning streak.
Assuming they hold onto the three-seed in the East, the Sixers should have no problem cruising through a first round, even if Embiid takes time to return from his orbital-bone fracture.
If things hold to form, they’ll meet the limping Celtics, sans Kyrie Irving, in the second round. My crystal ball calls that a six-game set, with the good guys claiming it in front of delirious fans in South Philly.
That is, of course, the moment Process Believers set their alarm clocks for back in May 2013. While I was never among them (I loathe the ethics of a prolonged tank and the NBA’s tacit approval of it), if the Sixers advance, I’ll have to, 1) Give those fans their due for patience and conviction, and 2) Admit that the damn thing worked.
Is it too much to dream the Sixers can knock off Cleveland or Toronto and get to the Finals? Probably so. Of their top five players by minutes (Embiid, Simmons, Dario Saric, J.J. Redick and Robert Covington), only Redick has appeared in a single NBA playoff game before now. Experience tends to matter as the games get bigger.
For the Flyers, it’s time to once again cue up the old Kate Smith video and grow the playoff beards. Alas, with a first-round matchup against Pittsburgh, I’m not sure how bushy those beards can get.
Claude Giroux has earned MVP consideration this season, and should continue his amazing level of play into the post-season. I love the sizzle coming from defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov. Like the Sixers, the Flyers enter the post-season on a hot streak.
But they face the two-time defending Cup champions in the first round. I don’t need to tell you how Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and Phil Kessel raise their games in the spring. And the Flyers are asking Brian Elliott to become a prime goalie after sitting out two months with an injury.
For now, I’ll predict the Pens take the series in seven games. But hey, it’s the NHL, where underdogs can win and go on an extended run – just see the 2010 Flyers or last season’s Nashville Predators. I’d be delighted if my hazy crystal ball calls this one wrong.