PHILADELPHIA -- Elton Brand was brought to Philadelphia in September 2015 for one reason: to give the young players on the 76ers some kind of guidance. The Sixers were in a tailspin, losing games at an NBA-record pace and management worried it might be doing lasting damage to the young players they had such great expectations for in the future.
But by early April, Brand had seen Philadelphia win just nine games. If they didn't get another win in the final five games of the season, the team would tie the 1972-73 Sixers for the worst record in NBA history.
It was time for some tough love. Brand had a huge poster made that said, "Congratulations on Tying the Record for Worst Team in NBA History" with the number of every player on the roster on it. He hung it in the locker room before the team's game against the New Orleans Pelicans on April 4, 2016.
"Degrading, for sure," Sixers guard TJ McConnell said.
"Honestly, I was pissed," Sixers center Joel Embiid said. "But I was hurt and couldn't do anything about it so I was just like, 'When I come back, something's got to change.'"
The Sixers went out and beat the Pelicans that night to win their 10th game of the season and avoid the ignominious distinction of tying the record for NBA futility. But Brand's point in making the poster was much larger than that. This group could be something special one day, but only if it started setting its expectations much, much higher.
"To think that was only two years ago? It's crazy how far we've come since then," Embiid told ESPN after the Sixers beat the Miami Heat 104-93 to close out their first-round playoff series 4-1.
What changed since that awful, 10-win season?
"Just setting the expectations high," Embiid said. "If I go out there and put it in the media we're going to make the playoffs and my teammates see that, that's my way of being a leader. I'm not going to go out there and say that we're going to go to the playoffs and not be there for my teammates.
"If my teammates know that Joel went out and said we gotta make the playoffs, then we actually do have to make the playoffs."
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Recently, Embiid has been saying a lot more than the Sixers are making the playoffs.
On the eve of Game 5, Embiid said the Sixers' time was now, that they need to seize this opportunity and start thinking of themselves as a NBA Finals team. He has been suggesting that for a while now, posting photos of the Sixers' potential path to the Finals on Instagram and mentioning it in various interviews. But there was always a smile or a wink as he said it.
Could Philadelphia really go that far, that soon after a 10-win season?
As he sat at his locker with Philadelphia basketball legend Sonny Hill on Tuesday night, he was not joking around.
"We have a chance," Embiid said. "We have a good chance."
After the way Philadelphia weathered the storm Miami threw at it in this series, it's hard to disagree with him. After the Sixers hit a franchise-record 18 3-pointers on 64 percent shooting in Game 1, the Heat switched up their defense to take away the outside shot as best it could. In Game 2, the Sixers hit just 7-of-36 from behind the arc. In Game 4, they hit 7-of-31. In Game 5, Philadelphia made just 7-of-25.
"We have shot terrible basically for four games," Sixers guard JJ Redick said Tuesday after scoring a game-high 25 points. "Tonight we were 7-for- from 3 in a closeout game and won by double figures. This was a physical series. At times it wasn't the prettiest, but it shows the physical nature of this series."
It also shows the Sixers' growth. They won in various ways throughout the series. They won physical games, they showed poise as Miami's veterans pushed them into uncomfortable situations, they cut back on their turnovers when it was time to steal a road game against a proud franchise. The only game they lost was when Dwyane Wade turned back the clock in Game 2 and controlled the action with his veteran savvy.
"This was a great series," Wade said Tuesday, after what could have been his final game. "I think they grew up and learned some things and the way we pushed them. These guys are the future of the NBA and the NBA is in great hands with Ben [Simmons] and Joel [Embiid] and those guys.
"I believe in those guys, that they'll be special for a while. And if they believe they can [win] now, then they can. It's all in their belief."
Before the season, Sixers coach Brett Brown made what was, at the time, the bold proclamation that Philadelphia expected to make the playoffs. After the worst four-year stretch in NBA history, there were those who thought Brown was setting unrealistic expectations for himself and his team.
Brown was just saying publicly what his players were saying among themselves.
"We all said that," McConnell said. "If we didn't make the playoffs, it was for sure a disappointment. But this isn't an NCAA tournament run where you get a couple of good wins. We're playing really good basketball, and in the playoffs you just have to continue it."
Tuesday morning at shootaround, Redick talked to the team about seizing the moment when you find yourselves in it. As a young player in Orlando, he went to the NBA Finals in 2009 (when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers) and assumed it would be a regular occurrence for the franchise.
"He told us how he walked off the floor of the Finals, in the year he went with the Magic, and he looked at everyone, Jameer [Nelson] and Dwight [Howard] had extensions they'd just started, and he said, 'Don't worry, we'll be back,'" McConnell recalled. "Well, he hasn't been back to the Finals since. So he said the window that's open for us now closes quickly, so we just have to keep taking advantage of it."
That made an impression on the Sixers.
"You can't take anything for granted," Embiid said.
If the Sixers' time is indeed now, it's time to start believing it.