To be the beat you have to beat the best, but it’s nice when you only have to beat them once and everyone else has to beat them twice. The Sixers might not have the most talented team in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They might not have the benefit of the doubt. But they do have the easiest road, and that alone makes them a tantalizingly viable pick for their first championship in 38 years.
This isn’t 2019, when the Sixers entered the playoffs knowing they needed to get past Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo to reach the Finals. This isn’t 2001, when the Eastern Conference playoffs were mostly a competition for the right to lose to the Lakers or the Spurs. This isn’t 1990, when the Bulls and the Pistons owned the East and the West featured five teams that won at least 54 games. For the first time since their early-‘80s glory days, the Sixers are looking at a playoff bracket that they can absolutely win.
Are they the “best” team in the field? No, they probably are not. They are a very good regular-season team with one all-world player and a bunch of steady complements. They cared more about winning in the regular season than most of their counterparts, and they took advantage of it. They beat the Nets in a pair of games in which Brooklyn was missing two of its three superstars. They beat the Heat in a couple of games in which Miami’s best player was out. They played the second-easiest schedule in the NBA, and finished with the second-best Net Rating in the Eastern Conference, and that was enough to win the most games. None of that gives us any reason to think that the Sixers are a dramatically different team from previous No. 1 seeds that were really good at winning in the regular season and really bad at doing it thereafter.
Right up until the final day of the season, there were all kinds of scenarios that would have left the Sixers feeling a whole lot worse about their chances than they have a right to feel now. They were one loss by the Hawks or Knicks away from a second-round matchup with a Heat team that dominated them in Miami last week and is 33-18 in its last 51 games. Now, Miami needs to beat the Bucks and the Nets in order to face the Sixers. Meanwhile, the only thing standing between the Wells Fargo Center and the Eastern Conference Finals are a bunch of teams the Sixers have had little problem beating.
The Sixers’ resume goes well beyond its schedule. They have a matchup problem for foes at center. They have a coach with a ring on the bench. They have an ideal combination of playoff experience and youthful zeal. We’ve seen them beat the Lakers, dominate the Mavericks, take the Bucks to overtime without Joel Embiid. Still, the big question with this team was how it would match up with the conference’s legitimate contenders after a regular season in which injuries and circumstance scuttled those matchups. Turns out, the big answer is that it won’t matter for the first couple of rounds.
“I feel like we know what we’ve got to do, especially with the playoffs starting, every play counts,” Embiid said after the Sixers clinched the No. 1 seed on Friday. “As good as we were in the regular season, I think we’re going to be better in the playoffs.”
Doc Rivers will spend the next several days attempting to convince his team that its road to the conference finals is much more serious than the outside voices would have them believe. He could be right. If the Celtics lose their play-in tournament opener and then win their second game, the Sixers will have a first-round series against the team that knocked them out of two of the last three postseasons. Brad Stevens and Jayson Tatum are not the sort of matchups a No. 1 seed expects to draw. The Sixers could also end up facing the Pacers, a team that has beaten them in four of their last six regular-season games.
That said, you’ll need a considerable amount of oxygen to talk yourself into trouble with any of these teams. The Celtics made a curious decision to enter the season without a single player who can match up against Embiid. They’ll also be playing without injured star Jaylen Brown. Likewise, the Pacers are not the Pacers of recent seasons. The Sixers won both of this year’s regular-season matchups when starting Embiid. And therein lies the most compelling reason to believe.
The teams that give the Sixers trouble are the big, tough, physical, two-way teams that shut down Ben Simmons and frustrate Embiid. Neither of their potential second-round opponents fits that mold. In their last three games against the Hawks with a healthy Embiid, the Sixers have scored 129, 127 and 126 points. In their last 15 games against the Knicks, they are 15-0.
With all of that in mind, imagine Mike Budenholzer’s thoughts right now. Only three games separated his Bucks from the Sixers in the final regular-season standings. They won both of the teams’ regular-season meetings. Yet Milwaukee’s reward for finishing with the third-best record in the conference is a first-round matchup with a team that is uniquely constructed to beat the Bucks. The Heat did exactly that in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, and there are plenty of more foolish thoughts than thinking that they will do it again. If the Bucks do manage to get past Miami, they will go from facing last year’s conference champ to a team that entered the season as this year’s presumptive favorite. The Nets have as much to prove as any team in recent playoff history, but they also have the most talent.
In an ideal world, the Eastern Conference Finals pit the Sixers against a team that has already endured at least one significant war of attrition. It’s a remarkably plausible scenario when you look at the bracket. The Sixers are good. Their road to the Finals is better.
“I’m happy about what we accomplished, but we have a long way to go,” Embiid said. “Now’s the time to lock in and go get the whole thing.”
It’s too early to talk destiny. Thus far, though, things have broken right.