INDIANAPOLIS — Following the final buzzer of the 76ers’ down-to-the-wire win at Cleveland Sunday night, it took Joel Embiid more than an hour to walk into a Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse auxiliary room for his postgame news conference.
The reason for his delay: His attention had turned to the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat’s victory over the Toronto Raptors. The Sixers’ resident basketball junkie and MVP contender will never fool anybody into thinking he is not always scoreboard watching. But the games are even more intriguing to follow these days, as the Eastern Conference playoff seedings seemingly change by the day — or hour — with the regular season in its final week.
“It’s kind of crazy, but that’s how the East has been tough this year,” Embiid said. " … One day, you think you might play this one team [in the first round]. And the other day, you might play another team. But it’s fun. It’s fun to pay attention to.”
Embiid didn’t have any NBA games to watch Monday, when the league took a night off for the NCAA men’s championship game between Kansas and North Carolina. The rare breather in the schedule offered an opportunity to reset where the Sixers stand in a jam-packed race.
The 48-30 Sixers remained in fourth place with four games to play following Sunday’s win at the Cavaliers. Though their record is the same as third-place Milwaukee, the Bucks have the 2-1 regular season-series tiebreaker after last week’s win in Philly. The Sixers and Bucks are also a half-game back of the second-place Boston Celtics (49-30), and 2 ½ games behind the first-place Miami Heat (51-28).
Per Basketball Reference, the Sixers have a 41.4% chance of finishing fourth in the East and a 33.6% chance of moving up to third. That means their most likely first-round playoff opponents are the Raptors (50.7% chance to finish fifth, 39.5% chance to finish sixth) or Chicago Bulls (42.1% chance to finish fifth, 55.7% chance to finish sixth). The Sixers swept Chicago 4-0 in the regular season, but have lost two of three matchups to the Raptors ahead of Thursday’s final regular-season meeting in Toronto.
The Sixers have a 22.6% chance of finishing in second, which would match them up with a participant in the play-in tournament (currently, in order, Cleveland, the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets or Brooklyn Nets). The conference’s top 10 teams, who will all enter Tuesday with a winning record, have been solidified.
After this week’s road trip, the Sixers close the regular season with a home back-to-back against Indiana and the Detroit Pistons on Saturday and Sunday. Per Tankathon, the Sixers have the NBA’s second-easiest remaining schedule, while Boston’s is rated as the league’s toughest, Milwaukee’s is 16th, and Miami’s is 26th.
Such models, though, cannot predict teams potentially resting key players in preparation for the playoffs. The NBA on Sunday night announced game times for its final weekend, which were previously to be determined, in an effort to prevent teams from manipulating their own games and hunt specific playoff matchups based on results elsewhere.
A breakdown of notable remaining games:
Sixers at Indiana
Milwaukee at Chicago
Charlotte at Miami
Atlanta at Toronto
Boston at Chicago
Sixers at Toronto
Boston at Milwaukee
Milwaukee at Detroit
Charlotte at Chicago
Atlanta at Miami
Houston at Toronto
Indiana at Sixers
Milwaukee at Cleveland
Boston at Memphis
Chicago at Minnesota
Toronto at New York
Miami at Orlando
The stakes still at play could create scenarios similar to Sunday, when the standings shifted multiple times during a full day of basketball. Boston and Milwaukee flipped when, while playing virtually simultaneously in the afternoon, the Celtics thumped Washington and the Bucks lost to Dallas. Later, Chicago and Toronto switched spots when the Raptors lost to the Heat.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers, who proclaimed all season that he never pays attention to the standings, quipped that he is “not sitting there with tea bags hanging and bunny rabbits laying around the room” but does notice when teams around the Sixers win or lose on a given night. All-Star guard James Harden, meanwhile, was among the teammates locked in on the Raptors-Heat game with Embiid late Sunday.
When asked if he closely follows the standings, Harden acknowledged, “I did at first.” But he has since given up on trying to decipher where each team will land by late Sunday.
“Everybody’s interchangeable at this point,” Harden said. “It changes, literally, every time somebody plays. … We just focus on ourselves and playing well and finding things that work and don’t work.”