As the Philadelphia 76ers put the finishing touches on the regular season, there’s a lot to be encouraged about. Joel Embiid is playing at an MVP level, James Harden is motivated to silence his critics, and young role players like Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle give Philly additional support.
Entering Thursday, the 49-30 Sixers occupy the four-seed in the Eastern Conference. That would place them in a first-round battle with the 46-33 Toronto Raptors, the club that eliminated them in a memorable 2019 second-round series.
A series against the Raptors should make Philadelphia sweat, and not just because Toronto is one of the hotter teams in the NBA. As it turns out, there’s a possibility the Sixers will be forced to go on the road without one of their key pieces and top defenders.
The 76ers are hoping to exorcise their playoff demons
If the famed “Process” was meant to get the 76ers back into perennial playoff contention, Sam Hinkie’s genius plan was an unmitigated success. But if the mission was to rule the East and win a title, it’s hard to say the plan actually worked.
Philadelphia has made the playoffs in four straight seasons, most recently winning its first division title since 2000-01 and securing the East’s top seed. But each year has ended prematurely, as the Sixers have failed to make it past the second round in each of their last four campaigns.
In 2017-18, their first playoff appearance since 2011-12, the 76ers were thoroughly outmatched by the Boston Celtics in a five-game drubbing in the second round. The next year, Kawhi Leonard’s miraculous game-winner in Game 7 eliminated the Sixers just before the conference finals. Then in the bubble, the Celtics once again took down Philly in a clean four-game sweep in the opening round.
Last year’s elimination was the worst one yet. As the East’s number one seed, the Sixers were primed to advance to the conference finals for only the second time since 1985. But thanks in part to a no-show performance from former point guard Ben Simmons, Philadelphia lost to the four-seed Atlanta Hawks in seven games.
Philadelphia is hoping to break its misfortunes with Harden, although the superstar has some demons of his own. The 2017-18 MVP was never able to take a dynamic Houston Rockets team to the NBA Finals. Not to mention, the Beard has a checkered history when it comes to personal postseason success.
Matisse Thybulle could leave the Sixers shorthanded come playoff time
For all of the talk about Embiid and Harden, Thybulle has had a decent hand in Philly’s overall success. Since entering the league in 2019, the 25-year-old has carved out a lane as one of the team’s elite defenders, averaging 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks across three seasons.
This season, Thybulle has continued showcasing his defense while being thrust into the starting lineup for 49 of his 64 games. Yet where things currently stand, there’s a good chance he won’t be able to contribute anything for at least two games in the first round.
Thursday morning, the 76ers listed Thybulle as “ineligible to play” for their road game against the Raptors, as first reported by ESPN. While nothing has officially been confirmed, it’s a sign that Thybulle hasn’t taken the COVID-19 vaccine.
Since Jan. 15, any player who wasn’t vaccinated would be ineligible to travel across the U.S.-Canada border to play in Toronto. The rule has affected Kyrie Irving, whose vaccination status has caused tremendous controversy throughout the season. Now, it could impact Thybulle on the eve of the postseason.
In the initial report, ESPN claims to have reached out to the top-four teams in the East to ask whether their rosters were fully vaccinated. The Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks both gave confirmation, while the Sixers and Celtics each declined to comment.
Thybulle did play in Toronto earlier this season on Dec. 28, days before the country enacted its border law. If the vaccine is the reason he won’t be able to suit up on the road, Philly will be losing its best wing defender for Games 3 and 4 as well as a possible Game 6.
A win on Thursday could help the 76ers avoid this disastrous scenario
At this point, the 76ers are hoping to avoid Toronto in the first round. Not only could Thybulle’s absence hurt them, but they’d be playing a team with just three losses since Mar. 9.
Thursday’s game is going to be big.
Should Philly beat Toronto on Thursday and then proceed to win against the struggling Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons this weekend, it’ll ensure a finish no worse than third in the East. With the Raptors up by 1.5 games on the Chicago Bulls for the five-spot, there’s a better chance than not that winning each of the next three prevents a first-round series vs. the Dinos.
If Philly takes on the Bulls instead, a team it went 4-0 against during the regular season, then a run through the playoffs feels a lot more tangible. And assuming the Sixers don’t face those pesky Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ll have Thybulle at their side for each pivotal matchup.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.