Following a weekend split of home games and the return of Joel Embiid, the Sixers remain in a tie with Brooklyn atop the Eastern conference (1.5 games ahead of Milwaukee). With 22 games left in the regular season and the trade deadline in the rear-view, the playoff picture is coming into clear focus and all signs point to an eventual Sixers-Nets matchup for a spot in the Finals.
There are certainly portions of the fan base who believe the Sixers are favorites in the East—and not without merit—but for every phanatic there seems to be a fan/pundit ready to be the wet blanket, arguing that Brooklyn is in fact the “team to beat” in the conference. For what it’s worth, I’ve been the latter, and Vegas continues to favor the Nets (+100) over the Sixers (+500) as well.
While they’ll be underdogs in any potential playoff series with Brooklyn, the Finals aren’t out of reach for a team who has spent most of the 2021 season alone atop the East standings. With that said, there are a few things that would need to break their way if they have any hope of coming out on top of the Nets in the conference.
This is obvious, of course, but it’s more relevant to the Sixers than any other team. The past few seasons have seen historical home/road splits—31-4 at home vs 12-26 on the road last year is the biggest such split in NBA history—and even in a season without fans in the stands they continue that trend (14-11 on the road, 20-5 at the Wells Fargo Center).
The only other team in the East whose home/road split is similar to that is Brooklyn, ironically enough (20-6 at home, 14-10 on the road). There’s an inclination to ignore this sort of data from the regular season, and while that’s fair in the Nets case, we have more than enough evidence to show just how much better the Sixers preform on their home court than the road.
Beyond the extra home game that’s afforded to the 1-seed in each playoff series, the luxury of having a potential Game 7 at home can’t be overstated to Philly fans who are quick to cite the 2019 Toronto series as proof of how important holding onto the top seed in the East is. The way I see it, without home-court advantage—without that extra game, and final Game 7 coming at the WFC—the Sixers won’t be able to get out of the East without outside help.
This is another variable that applies to any and every playoff matchup, but carries more weight in a Sixers-Nets series than most. Any injury (big or small) can have an outsized influence on the outcome of a series, and the NBA playoffs have historically seen tides turn with the roll of an ankle or tweak of a knee. With Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid each battling injury this season on top of their own checkered history, it’s easy to see how this potential matchup could flip on it’s head in the blink of an eye.
Durant has missed all but 19 games this season due to a hamstring injury, and when you consider that on top of the already-stressful rehab from his achilles injury, there’s reason to believe his legs won’t/can’t be 100% under him come playoff time. Obviously he isn’t someone who relies on lift or athleticism to the degree that a lot of stars do, but a less than fully-healthy Durant is vulnerable (guardable), plain and simple.
Embiid, on the other hand, is equally injury-prone. While he’s preformed at an MVP level for much of the 2021 season, there have been stretches where his back is clearly bothering him on court, and if that isn’t fully cleared up come playoff time then it’s the sort of lingering injury that could knock his performance down a peg from where he’s been/would need to be to pull off the upset.
Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving have played just 7 games together this season. If the 8th time that happens is come Game 1 of the playoffs then I don’t see how they can match up with the Sixers in a series.
Brooklyn continues to play high-level basketball in the absence of whichever of their big-three is sitting on a given night, but that doesn’t mean they can waltz into the playoffs without developing a little chemistry first. Not only do the big-three need more reps together before diving head first into playoff battles, but Durant hasn’t played with just about every one of their current role players—that’s a problem.
There may be an inclination to roll your eyes at this idea given they’re still the team with the most talent, but you can’t just roll out of bed and win in the NBA playoffs. More often than not, it takes over a year to develop a championship-level of chemistry in a locker room. The 2012 Heat learned that the Finals aren’t played on paper or on 2K, and the 2021 Nets will learn a similar lesson if they don’t start playing with their full roster together soon.