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Sixers could be in the process of a playoff run

Balanced team rolls in opener without All-Star center Joel Embiid

PHILADELPHIA — It was a chant that started with a few fans early in the fourth quarter, but as Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown cleared his bench with just under a minute left in the game, it appeared the entire crowd in the Wells Fargo Center had joined in.

“Trust the process, trust the process …” the crowd roared over and over again, and with what the Sixers have done over these last several weeks, there are probably a lot more people outside of Philadelphia who believe that the process is legit.

Despite earning the No. 3 seed in the East and ending the season with a 16-game winning streak — and an NBA record to close the season — there were more than a few questions that hung over the Sixers.

How would they fare in the postseason, when games are played at a different pace? Would the youngsters clam up in a playoff environment? Would the team be able to keep its momentum as its best post player, Joel Embiid, continued to sit as he recovers from a facial fracture?

The Sixers did just fine, and with Saturday’s 130-103 win over the Miami Heat, the youngsters were exceptional. And the Sixers are going to be OK as they proved yet again they can adapt their style of play and still win without their All-Star center.

OK, it’s just one game. That pretty much sums up the opinion of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra (“They don’t get two or three wins out of this one; it’s just one win”), and Sixers guard J.J. Reddick (“It’s just one game out of the series”).

That all might be true. But these Sixers are so talented, so unselfish and enjoy playing with each other so much that many doubters might be in the process of being swayed by the most balanced team in the Eastern Conference.

Missing Embiid has been no problem for Philadelphia, which is now playing with more of a spread offense that relies heavily on 3-point shooters (the Sixers hit a playoff record 18 3-pointers on Saturday) and ball movement (the Sixers had 34 assists). Reddick, Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli each hit four 3-pointers.

Ben Simmons just missed a triple-double (17 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds), ending with a brilliant second half that came after he turned the ball over five times in the first.

Robert Covington got into early foul trouble and didn’t finish with big numbers (nine points, seven rebounds). Even though he didn’t score a point in the third quarter, he played top-notch defense and controlled the boards in the quarter where the Sixers nearly doubled Miami’s scoring (34-18).

“Rob was huge: a lot of deflections, blocks,” Simmons said. “He’s just a great all-around defender. He did a great job.”

Brown added: “He was a man. Physical, sliding his feet … he’s deceptively strong. He’s such a wonderful story for us that he’s a poster child for development.”

And the Sixers become scarier when the poster child for “The Process”— Embiid — comes back from the orbital fracture that’s kept him out of nine straight games. Even while Embiid told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that he expects to play in Game 2 or 3, he still posed a scary figure on Saturday by coming out to strike the Liberty Bell replica, a pregame tradition, while wearing a white Phantom of the Opera-type mask that covered half of his face.

Knowing that his team is overachieving without arguably its best player has Brown feeling real good about his first trip to the postseason as a head coach.

“I feel this group has something special,” Brown said. “The guys have bought in. Our 3-point shooting playing without Embiid has become part of our identity.

“I look at what we’re doing and the future of this organization, and this is what I feel most responsible and excited about,” Brown said. “I’m excited for our fans and our young team, and there’s a lot more coming.”

And that should make the rest of the Eastern Conference very afraid.

“All these guys have bought in,” Brown said. “We’re moving on in tremendous ways. I feel this team has something special in it.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.