What to make of Sixers at the All-Star Break

The 76ers reached the halfway point – technically the 55-game point – with a winning record, the potential for reaching the playoffs and the promise of a bright future.

The marathon 82-game season is fluid.

While everything might look rosy and upbeat heading into the All-Star Weekend, it can change that quickly.

Joel Embiid was held out against the Miami Heat because of right ankle soreness. It’s the 11th game he has missed this season.

In the big picture, the Sixers are trending up.

For the first time in five seasons, that’s saying something.

“I think we’ve shown that we’re going to play hard all the time,” forward Dario Saric said. “We’re going to come in and work and fight for the win every night out. It’s not easy sometimes in this league, but we’re going to give the effort. The fans deserve that. I think we’re playing good basketball. It could always be better.”

The Sixers are indeed better – especially with Embiid in the lineup. Amazingly, the Sixers rallied from 24 points down to stun the Miami Heat, 104-102 on Wednesday. The Sixers are 30-25 and swept their five-game homestand.

They’re better with Saric providing consistent minutes. They’re better with Simmons putting up Rookie of the Year-type numbers.  Simmons had his sixth triple-double of the season against the Heat.

“We’ve come a long way since last season,” said Simmons, who had 18 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. “We’re learning how to close out games.”

They’re better with ever-improving guard T.J. McConnell becoming a key piece off the bench.

McConnell posted a stunning triple-double off the bench in Monday’s win over the New York Knicks.

“I just think that it’s the thing that endears himself to all of us, you respect him, you really respect him,” coach Brett Brown said. “He just plays so hard, he’s a wonderful lesson for so many basketball players in relation to what determination, perseverance, toughness can bring you to. We’ve seen him grow, he continues to get better and tonight he was incredible.”

The Sixers have deficiencies and injury issues. There’s a reason they’ve been hovering around the No. 7 or 8 seed in the race for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

The final 27 games don’t look terribly difficult on paper. But in this league, wins are far from guaranteed. Nothing is given to you. The Sixers must go out and earn the first playoff berth since 2012.

They’re going to keep churning. That’s for sure.

“Defense is the key,” Embiid said. “ We started learning how to play with each other. We have some key pieces missing in Markelle, and Marco Belinelli didn’t play (Monday), but he will fit in with us well. Coach tells us the league is always looking for a break before the All-Star Game, and then now we are taking advantage of it. …  It will put us in a great position for the playoff race.”

It’s hard to put an overall grade on the first 55 games for the Sixers. It’s even more difficult to place individual grades on the players because of the rebuild.

This much is certain: Hope is on the horizon. That hope could be dampened if Embiid keeps missing games and ultimately can’t be the franchise cornerstone in the playoffs. That’s a story for another day.

“We all believe in each other,” Saric said. “We will fight together and work together.”

Where that fight and work lands them in April will be the next major step. They took a big step against Miami and now own the most wins by the All-Star break since the 2000-01 season.

“There’s so much work to be done,” forward Robert Covington said, “but we’re on our way. We’ve got to keep going forward and working. And working some more.”

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