The 76ers will play the first of their eight regular-season seeding games Saturday against the Indiana Pacers, and right off the bat, it is a crucial game if the Sixers plan on moving up the Eastern Conference standings.
Both the Sixers and Indiana posted 39-26 records before the NBA shutdown. The Pacers are the fifth seed and the Sixers are the sixth based on Indiana’s 2-1 lead in this year’s season series.
There is one school of thought (including from this reporter) that the Sixers would be better off staying at the No. 6 seed, where they would avoid the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks until the Eastern Conference final. That is not to say they would have it easy against any other opponent, but having a few series to gain momentum against the favored Bucks appears the best route to go. If the Sixers don’t stay at the No. 6 seed, moving up to No. 3 would also keep them from facing the top seed until the conference final.
Coach Brett Brown has constantly said he doesn’t look at those things. He wants his team playing well and hitting its stride when the playoffs begin on Aug. 17.
Here are the standings:
According to NBA.com, the Sixers have the second-easiest schedule among the remaining 22 teams that will be competing at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Kissimmee, Fla.
The Sixers’ eight opponents have a .506 winning percentage. Only the New Orleans Pelicans have a lower opponents’ winning percentage (.495).
But not all remaining schedules are created equal. A lot depends on when a team is playing one another. For instance, beginning with their second game, the Sixers will play five teams in a row that have yet to clinch a playoff berth: San Antonio, Washington, Orlando, Portland, and Phoenix.
Some of those teams could be eliminated by the time they face the Sixers, so the level of motivation will be way down. Consequently, if those teams are in the playoff running, their motivation could be up.
The top six Eastern Conference teams have already clinched a berth, and without home-court advantage as a goal, there could be less motivation to win the seeding games. Coaches could experiment with lineups and use that time to set their rotations.
Brown, with many wing candidates, could be one of those coaches looking to fine-tune the rotation for the playoffs. The highest the Sixers could realistically finish is No. 3, but that would take some doing, being 4.5 games behind Boston with eight to play.
Here is the Sixers’ records against the five teams ahead of them: Milwaukee (1-2), Toronto (1-2), Boston (3-1), Miami (1-3), Indiana (1-2).
There is a major question of how much the records against others mean since teams would have been idle for about 4 1/2 months before the resumption of the regular season, which began Thursday.
Of the teams ahead of them, the Sixers play only Indiana and Toronto, and the game vs. the Raptors is the second-to-last one. By then, the game could have little meaning to either team.
The key for any team will be health, and Brown said he expects Joel Embiid to be available against Indiana, but the three-time All-Star center missed the last two scrimmages with discomfort in his right calf. Even though the Sixers said he missed those games for precautionary measures, Embiid’s extensive injury history gives reason for pause, but he was not listed on the NBA injury report on Friday evening for Saturday’s game.
Two teams to watch as far as health are Boston and Indiana.
Boston point guard Kemba Walker has been battling a knee injury. He played nine minutes in the Celtics’ second scrimmage. Walker was among seven Celtics regulars given the night off in Tuesday’s final scrimmage against Houston. Walker has battled the injury during the season, and reverting to his All-Star form will be vital for the Celtics to make a run.
Indiana forward Domantas Sabonis is dealing with plantar fasciitis, which forced him to leave the NBA bubble on July 24. A first-time All-Star this season, he averaged 15.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in the three games against the Sixers.
He won’t play against the Sixers, and there is no telling whether he will return this season.
Earlier this week, Brown talked about what he feels it will take for teams to extend their seasons in the NBA bubble.