The 76ers have returned to the top of the Eastern Conference for the first time in two decades.
With Friday’s 122-97 win over the Orlando Magic at the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Since the NBA’s current seeding format began in 1983-84, the Sixers were the top seed just one other time, in 2000-01. That team, led by franchise icon Allen Iverson, reached the NBA Finals, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Will history repeat itself?
The Sixers (48-23) will finish the regular season against these same Magic on Sunday at home. After that, the Sixers will get a much-anticipated rest before beginning the playoffs either next Saturday or Sunday.
“I am happy what we accomplished but we have a long way to go,” said Joel Embiid, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds, scoring all of his points in the first half after being limited to six points and two rebounds in Thursday’s 106-94 loss at Miami.
Even though Embiid is the focal point of the offense, he said a total team effort helped earn the No. 1 seed.
“I felt like everybody contributed, and it starts on the defensive end,” Embiid said.
Ben Simmons, who missed last year’s first round sweep by the Boston Celtics due to a knee injury, is anxious to return to the postseason.
“We put ourselves in a good position but ultimately want to win a championship,” said Simmons, who had 13 points and nine assists. “We want to take each series one at a time.”
This 72-game NBA schedule was played in a blur. The Sixers will have played their final 36 games after the All-Star break in 67 days, a true test of endurance.
The Sixers were without Dwight Howard, who was suspended for one game without pay for receiving his 16th technical foul of the season in Thursday’s 106-94 loss at Miami. Matisse Thybulle missed his third straight game with left hand soreness.
As the Sixers have for so many late-season games, they were playing a banged-up opponent. Magic coach Steve Clifford paid high praise for former Sixer Markelle Fultz, who suffered a season-ending torn left ACL in the eighth game of the year.
“I look at the teams playing now for fourth, fifth and sixth [seeds], and if he doesn’t get hurt we are right there,” Clifford said before the game. “We were 6-2 out of the gate and that injury was a game-changer.”
Fultz was among seven players out for Orlando.
This one was over by halftime after the Sixers outscored the Magic 39-19 in the second quarter to lead 66-43 at intermission.
Seth Curry led the Sixers with 20 points in 23 minutes.
Now the Sixers can prepare for what they feel can be a long postseason run, and they won’t be patting themselves too much on the back for earning the top seed.
“It’s not what we want, but it’s part of what you can get on your way to what you want,” coach Doc Rivers said. “So, I think for this team, being as young as we are, to have home court is really important, it’s nice to have, so we should feel proud of it.”
The Eastern Conference title goes through Philadelphia, where the Sixers are 28-7 at home. In addition to having the advantage of playing before their rabid fan base, the Sixers, if they advance that far, will also avoid playing Brooklyn or Milwaukee until the conference final.
Second-place Brooklyn owns a one-game lead over Milwaukee, with each team having two games left. The Nets (46-24) could finish with the same record as Philadelphia if the Sixers drop the season finale against Orlando, but the Sixers own the tiebreaker by virtue of having won two of the three meetings with Brooklyn.
The third quarter was delayed because of a shot-clock malfunction. The problem couldn’t be solved, so PA announcer Matt Cord was given the added duty of counting down the time on each possession. Eventually shot clocks were placed on each corner of the court as backups.
This was just another unexpected twist to an unconventional season. The Sixers, like many teams, lost players due to injury and/or COVID-related instances.
Despite all the obstacles, the Sixers earned the top spot and will await their opponent from the NBA’s play-in tournament that will determine the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.
“I don’t care who we play,” Simmons said. “That is the point of having the No. 1 seed: You feel like you’re the best team in the conference, you are supposed to play anybody. If you are scared, you shouldn’t be in this position.”