History is full of fascinating what-ifs. What if Washington never crossed the Delaware? What if Franz Ferdinand never went to Sarajevo? What if Michael Martinez never ran down that Chipper Jones line drive at the warning track in left-center in the 10th inning of the last day of the 2011 season?
That last one is a question that the 76ers would be wise to consider as they embark on what could easily end up being their most important six-game stretch between now and the Eastern Conference Finals. For guys like Doc Rivers, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the fashionable thing to do is to pretend that the stakes are no different now than they were two months ago. They want the No. 1 seed this season for the same reasons they’d want it any year: home-court advantage, the chance to face the fourth seed in the conference finals, etc. Matchups? They don’t look at matchups. The only matchup that matters is themselves against themselves.
These are the same sorts of things that Charlie Manuel and his Phillies were saying 10 years ago as they prepared for Game 162. They’d arrived in Atlanta having already clinched the top seed in the National League playoffs. Meanwhile, the Braves were locked in a battle with the Cardinals for the National League’s wild-card spot. After the Phillies won the first three games of the series, it left them in an uncomfortable situation. If the Braves beat the Phillies, they’d clinch a playoff berth. If the Phillies beat the Braves, the spot would go to the Cardinals, a team that had given the Phillies all sorts of problems over the previous few seasons.
As you are probably aware, the Phillies chose the latter option, stunning the Braves in 13-inning thriller and locking in the Cardinals as their opponent for the divisional series. That series would not end well for the good guys. A decade later, it remains their most recent playoff series.
For the Sixers, the moral of the story is that matchups matter. If you have the option of giving yourself an easier road through the postseason, you would be wise to exercise it.
With less than two weeks remaining before start of the NBA playoffs, the Sixers have that opportunity. Unlike the Phillies, the only thing they need to do to take advantage of it is win. With a de facto 2½-game lead over the Nets and Bucks with six games left to play, the Sixers need only four wins to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference. In doing so, they could give themselves one of the easiest routes to the conference finals in recent history. Assuming the Knicks or Hawks hold off the Celtics and Heat between, the Sixers would set themselves up for a second-round matchup against a team that they have dominated this season. The Hornets would await in the first round.
Even as you talk through the scenarios, it is difficult to believe the sort of position the Sixers can put themselves in over these last six games. A month-and-a-half ago, team president Daryl Morey spoke of his team as one of five teams who had a legitimate chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. At the moment, one of those five teams is poised to enter the playoffs as the sixth seed, while the other would have to participate in the NBA’s four-team play-in tournament.
The potential ramifications of these last two weeks of basketball are monumental. The Heat and Celtics both entered Thursday with records of 35-31, tying them for sixth place in the conference behind the Knicks (37-29) and Hawks (37-30). Furthermore, the two teams play each other twice in their last six games. That might look like close race, but the most recent odds gave both teams less than a 6% chance of finishing as the fourth seed.
Should the Knicks or the Hawks clinch the fourth seed, and should the Sixers clinch the first, the Sixers would find themselves with a conference semifinals matchups against one of two teams whom they are a combined 5-1 against this season. Barely more than a week ago, the Sixers blew out Atlanta in a pair of back-to-back wins, outscoring the Hawks by a combined margin of 253-197. Their one loss to the Hawks came back in January in a game started by Dakota Mathias, Tyrese Maxey, and Mike Scott due to the COVID-19-related absences of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Seth Curry. Meanwhile, the Sixers are 15-0 against the Knicks over the last four seasons.
If that wasn’t incentive enough, consider the scenario that would await the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Not only would the Nets and Bucks need to face each other in the second round, they’d have to do so after playing first round series against the Celtics and the Heat. Miami and Boston might not be the world-beaters some expected at the start of the season, but they are hardly the sort of opponents a top-three seed expects in the first round. Miami’s most recent game against the Nets was a 109-107 win, while they’ve split their first two games against the Bucks. The Celtics, meanwhile, have won two out of three against the Bucks, while losing all three to the Nets.
Granted, there are still plenty of ways the postseason field could shake out. But the best-case scenario is so wildly beneficial that these next four wins could be the most crucial of the season.
“Every game we play at home, it just feels like we’re unbeatable,” Embiid said recently. “So we just gotta keep pushing, keep grinding out these wins, and do our best to keep winning.”
Sure, home-court advantage would be great. But the real prize is the matchups.