The Sixers and the NBA have a lot at stake in the playoffs

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Danny Green has won three NBA championships in his 12-year career, and one of the threads connecting those titles was the circumstances and strategy that led to them. The San Antonio Spurs in 2014, the Toronto Raptors in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers last year: Nothing was quite the same about those teams come the playoffs. Each club was a little different, a little fresher, once the postseason began. Gregg Popovich stopped giving Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili nights off. Kawhi Leonard stopped load-managing. And the COVID-19 pandemic afforded LeBron James and Anthony Davis five months to rest and heal before they bunkered inside the Orlando bubble.

Green was a glue guy on each of those teams, an essential wing player who delivered intelligence, good defense, and sharp perimeter shooting, just as he has for the 76ers this season. He has witnessed, starting with Popovich’s approach in San Antonio, the gradual shift in priorities throughout the NBA. It used to be that a team tried to win as many games as it could during the regular season, then took its chances in the postseason. Now, the playoffs are all that matter, and teams prefer entering them with their stars healthy for the sprint — even if it means sacrificing wins along the way — and Green prefers it this way.

“It’s definitely a good thing, a key thing, if you’re able to do so — rest your players and win games at the same time,” he said. “But it’s been tough this year with COVID, with injuries, with health, travel, condensed schedule. It’s hard to have games where you can just rest people. You feel like you’re always behind a game or need to win a game. Every game was pretty important this year, where we couldn’t just rest guys.”

That’s the ultimate irony of this Sixers season. After courting controversy for all those years by keeping their best players on the bench, by holding out Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for the sake of a reward in the distant future, now the Sixers carry the torch for the concept of putting in a full night’s or a full season’s work. At least compared to the favorites in the East: the Brooklyn Nets.

Let’s understand exactly what is at stake in these playoffs: nothing less than the value of the NBA regular season. It’s one thing if the Sixers or the Milwaukee Bucks represent the East in the NBA Finals. It’s another if the Nets — with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden appearing together in just eight games all season — do. Then this 72-game campaign will have been rendered meaningless, and the NBA, facing plummeting ratings and interest, will have an even bigger problem than it already does.

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There’s no guarantee that the Sixers and their method will prevail in this philosophical battle. They’re likely to have favorable matchups in the first two rounds, and they’ll have home-court advantage throughout the tournament, and the edge that a closer-to-full or even a packed Wells Fargo Center will give them could be decisive over a seven-game series. But playoff basketball is less about a team’s complete roster than it is its top-end talent, and so many of those stars have sat out so many games this season that it’s impossible to guess how a series against, say, the Nets or even the Miami Heat might unfold.

Sure, the Sixers went 35-7 in the games that Embiid and Simmons played together, but is that mark any more predictive than the Nets’ 31-13 record with Harden? The Heat are the sixth seed, 40-32 overall, seemingly pretty mediocre … except that Jimmy Butler, who sustained several injuries and was in the league’s COVID-19 protocol for a time, suited up in just 52 games. With him, the Heat went 33-19, and as analyst Tom Haberstroh noted, more telling was this: Butler played in just one of Miami’s nine games this season against the Eastern Conference’s top three teams. That one game was the Heat’s 106-94 thrashing of the Sixers a week ago, in which Butler scored 16 first-quarter points and reminded everyone of the power and influence that a star can wield on a game’s, or an entire postseason’s, outcome.

Green didn’t need the refresher. He played in 80 games for the Raptors during the 2018-19 season, 20 more than Leonard. But as good as that Toronto team was through 82 games — 58-24, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, with Marc Gasol arriving at the trade deadline — it was something different, something better, in the playoffs. Leonard wasn’t resting anymore. He was dominating every game, shooting close to 50%, averaging more than 30 points, and in their six-game Finals, coach Nick Nurse threw a box-and-one at Stephen Curry and a triangle-and-two against Curry and Klay Thompson, defenses that the Raptors hadn’t played all season.

“It worked because they had no idea what we were doing, and by the time they figured it out, it was too late,” Green said. “Outside of that, rotations went down offensively. We let Kawhi do more of his thing, and we operated around him. …

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“We had a superstar scorer who could take the game over, and he did that. He did that more often than he had to during the regular season because the game slows down that much more. He started making decisions, scoring and passing and finding guys. So we gave him the keys and jumped on his back, and he carried us.”

Maybe Embiid, in better condition than he’s ever been, becomes that same force for the Sixers this spring. In all likelihood, he will have to be. Look around. Butler has done it. The Nets have three players who can. All of them are rested and ready. For the Sixers and the entire NBA, the real season starts now, for better or worse.