After last night’s win over the lowly Rockets, the Sixers magic number to clinch the one-seed in the East is down to just four (w/ six games remaining). With probability metrics listing them as having a 98% chance of securing that top spot, it’s safe to say they’re a virtual lock at this point.
I don’t need to explain to Sixers fans the importance of home court advantage in a
potential likely series with the Nets; and more importantly, avoiding the third-seed Bucks in the second round all but guarantees the Sixers as the healthier/more-rested team in the Conference Finals. I’ve long held that if the Sixers hope to beat Brooklyn they need to have every advantage on the margins—an extra home-game, Game 7 at the WFC, and healthier roster—and they’re well on their way to capturing that advantage.
With their first-place position all but set in stone, it’s time to pivot our attention to potential playoff matchups. Here’s what the Eastern Conference Playoff Picture looks like as it stands today (probabilities included):
Possible first round opponents (by most to least likely): Hornets, Pacers, Wizards, Heat, Celtics
Possible second round opponents: Knicks, Hawks, Heat, Celtics
Unlike season’s past, the play-in tournament adds a lot more variance to the one-seed’s path to the Conference Finals than we normally see at this point in the season. Altogether, there’s 18 possible combinations of first and second round opponents for the Sixers; here’s a breakdown of which are most favorable (GREEN), least favorable (RED), and in between (YELLOW):
How it happens: Wizards win two games in the play-in tournament to earn the 8-seed. Heat move up to the 5-seed, beat the Knicks in the 4/5 matchup.
Beal, Westbrook, Butler—typically you wanna avoid this level of star in the playoffs, and if this is the Sixers first and second round matchups then their rest/health advantage over Brooklyn becomes decidedly less so.
Celtics—Heat (or vice versa)
How it happens: The Celtics fall to the 7-seed, lose the 7/8 play-in game, then win the following matchup vs the 9/10 winner, making them the 8-seed. The Heat move up to the 5-seed, beat the Knicks in the 4/5 matchup.
I realize Boston has been struggling to find itself through the regular season, but you could argue they’re built for the playoffs with switchability and shot-makers all over—two things that have given the Sixers fits in the not-so-distant past.
How it happens: Wizards win two games in the play-in tournament to earn the 8-seed. Celtics move up to the 5-seed, beat the Knicks in the 4/5 matchup.
This is admittedly the most palatable of the four “hardest paths” to the ECF, but it’s far-less than ideal than most of the other possibilities out there. Beal, Westbrook, then a thorny Boston team with a heating-up Tatum is something every Sixers fan should hope to avoid.
Best case scenarios:
Hornets—Knicks, Hornets—Hawks, Pacers—Knicks, Pacers—Hawks
How it happens: Hawks hold off the Heat/Celtics for the 5-seed. Either of the Heat/Celtics wins the 7/8 play-in game and earn the 7-seed. Wizards lose to either of the Pacers or Hornets in their first or second play-in matchup.
A Knicks/Hawks 4/5 matchup guarantees a favorable second round opponent, and missing the Heat, Celtics, Wizards for the Hornets or Pacers in round one is as obvious as it gets. In any combination of Hornets-Knicks, Pacers-Knicks, Pacers-Hawks, Hornets-Hawks I can’t see the Sixers losing more than 1 or 2 games altogether.
The difference between having to play a four and five game series in the two rounds leading up to the ECF as opposed to a pair of tough six game series (or god forbid a full-seven) can’t be overstated. Obviously this is entirely out of the Sixers control, but they’re hoping to avoid a doomsday scenario that sees them face legitimate opponents (Heat) and real superstars (Westbrook, Beal) before meeting Brooklyn.
Earning the one-seed obviously goes a long way in easing the Sixers path through the East. But unlike season’s past, the play-in tournament has thrown a wrench into the playoff picture. All we can do at this point is sit back and hope the Sixers catch the break in playoff matchups that they’ve earned.