Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia 76ers pass first test as tough stretch of matchups loom

The Philadelphia 76ers have weathered the storm of injuries and absences to key players, going 15-5 over their past 20 games, picking up a key win over the Dallas Mavericks on the road tonight, 113-95.

With Joel Embiid back in the lineup they look like a completely different team, bullying opponents in the paint, with the MVP candidate shining as the focal point of the team's offence once again.

Against the Mavericks, who were without big man Kristaps Porzingis, Embiid was getting whatever he wanted, dropping 36 points and seven rebounds in just 26 minutes, including 14-of-15 at the free-throw line, recording his 17th 30-point game of the season.

In the six games since he's been back, in the lineup, the 76ers are 4-2, dropping games against the Memphis Grizzlies (Embiid was rested) and the New Orleans Pelicans, but remain at the top of the Eastern Conference with a 37-17 record.

While they've remained afloat in recent weeks, they have struggled to leave an impression against playoff calibre teams, with their only wins against teams over .500 of late coming against the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, while dropping games against the Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, albeit without Embiid.

With 18 games remaining and their key rotation players healthy, this next run of games will serve as a measuring stick for how the 76ers stack up against playoff-calibre teams as they look to secure home-court advantage throughout the postseason by finishing the regular season as the East's No. 1 team.

Their next six games begin with a four-game homestand against the Brooklyn Nets, LA Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns before back-to-back games in Milwaukee against the Bucks, who are currently just 3.5 games back, sitting third in the East.

This stretch could prove to be a defining one in the 76ers season and with Embiid playing at a high level, they'll have no excuses.

As they look to build momentum ahead of the post-season, one man who has stamped his authority on the team is Tobias Harris, who has excelled late in games and emerged as the team's closer.

After missing out on an All-Star selection, Harris has taken his game to greater heights, averaging 20.6 points on 52.7 percent shooting and 40.5 percent from three, adding 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game, with his confidence riding high under head coach Doc Rivers.

"I would say that just the way that he's pushed me [has unleashed the best in me]," Harris told Basketball News.

"I think a lot of people look at it and think like, it magically happens, but he's a coach that pushes me a whole lot - on the floor, off the floor - and he puts me in those positions to make things happen. He shows a lot of trust in my game and knows where is best for me on the court, but also, lets me know where he kinda doesn't want me in different situations.

"I think that has been a great deal to the success, and then on top of that, things are better when you win. So when you're out there and we're playing winning basketball, that only enhances everyone else's game, and that has helped myself as well."

Meanwhile the third member of their Big 3, Ben Simmons has taken somewhat of a backseat to Harris and Embiid in terms of scoring, with his output decreasing from 21.0 points per game in February to 15.5 in March and just 9.9. per game in April.

Despite that, his playmaking, rebounding and defence remain key to the 76ers success, with Doc Rivers imploring the Aussie to remain aggressive, beyond putting the ball in the basket.

"I want him to be aggressive, but I think you think of aggressiveness as him aggressive scoring," Rivers said.

"I think him aggressive is [Ben] getting into the paint and creating plays. He can have an aggressive game for me where he doesn't shoot a lot, but he was aggressive, and he used his speed. That's what we want."

With one eye on the post-season, the 76ers spacing will again come into question, one they've answered well this season, thanks largely to the play Danny Green (41.4 percent), Seth Curry (41.1.) and recently Mike Scott, who is connecting on 38.7 of his triples over in his last eight games.

Curry has been up and down in their recent games after returning from an ankle injury in March, but against the Mavericks it was Furkan Korkmaz who stepped up with an impressive performance off the bench with 20 points on 4-of-7 from beyond the arc, with his constant off-ball movement and transition play creating plenty of open looks.

Korkmaz, who is shooting 37.3 percent from deep this season, could well prove to be an x-factor for the 76ers in the post-season, with newly-acquired veteran George Hill, a career 38.4 percent 3-point shooter still yet to suit up for the 76ers as he recovers from a thumb injury.

All of the pieces are in place for the 76ers to make a deep run and with everyone close to full health, this next string of playoff-like games will give a clearer picture of their championship ambitions.

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