The 76ers' Ben Simmons reacts to his assist during the...

The 76ers' Ben Simmons reacts to his assist during the second half in Game 5 of a first-round NBA playoff series against the Heat on Tuesday in Philadelphia. Credit: AP / Chris Szagola

PHILADELPHIA — NBA coaches, by trade, are a very careful bunch. No one wants to publicly admit they are looking beyond the next possession, let alone the next game.

Yet, as the 76ers stood on the precipice of completing one of the most studied and controversial rebuilds in NBA history, their coach Brett Brown simply could not keep the facade up. In his news conference before Game 5 of the 76ers-Heat first-round series, Brown let it be known that he feels he is standing in a special time and a special place.

“I feel like there’s no team that has more of a chance for an upside than we do,” Brown said. “Because of youth, because of the fact we haven’t had Joel Embiid for a month. I get really excited because the longer we stay in this, I see an upside here that can go to a very high level of play.”

Just how high? After watching the 76ers step on the necks of the Heat on Tuesday night to close out the series with a 104-91 victory, you would have to consider them to be a legitimate contender for the Eastern Conference title.

Did I just write that? The 76ers could go to the NBA Finals? The very concept is mind-boggling. Yet it’s hard not be impressed with the way youngsters Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons defeated a desperate Heat team Tuesday night. The duo combined for 44 points and 22 rebounds and senior statesman JJ Redick scored 25 points, shooting 5-for-10 from three-point range.

“Their poise belies their years,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Embiid and Simmons after the game. “That’s impressive to do in a playoff setting.”

In the course of one season, the 76ers have gone from a 28-win team to a 52-win team. Only one team in NBA history, the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, has made a more dramatic single-season improvement. After trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the Celtics were able to follow a 24-win season with 66 wins and an NBA title.

The 76ers’ rebuild was decidedly more painful and protracted, considering the way they tore the franchise down to the studs four seasons ago. The 76ers lost at least 54 games for four seasons, including 72 losses two years ago.

Yet, unlike the Knicks, who have lost 50 or more games for four straight seasons, the 76ers were actually a team with a coherent plan, or as they like to call it a coherent “process.” That process — referred to as tanking by some — featured losing, injuries and holding players out of games. It also features some savvy decisions as the team shook the bushes to find the right players to complement draft picks Embiid and Simmons.

People knew that the 76ers had the potential to be pretty good this year, but this good? Redick, 33, a guard who signed with the team this summer, admits he didn’t expect anything like this.

“My hope was that we would figure out a way into the playoffs,” says Reddick, who is the sole starter over the age of 24.

Right now, the 76ers are the hottest team in the East. The Cavaliers haven’t looked this tentative since James came back to Cleveland. The Celtics are missing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. And the top-seeded Raptors have looked anything but dominant against No. 8 seed Washington.

“I think our time is now,” Embiid said before Tuesday’s game. “We have a special team, and I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.”

The only question is how quickly they will get there.

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