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May 17, 2021

Breaking down the optimal playoff path for the Sixers to win the title

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The regular season is over, and the Sixers have emerged triumphant in their battle for the No. 1 seed. It took until the season's final weekend to lock things up, but the job was finished. And as they wait for the play-in tournament to decide who they'll ultimately draw in the first round of the playoffs, Philadelphia has shown no fear in the face of uncertainty.

"I don't care who we play," Ben Simmons said late last week. "That's the point of having the No. 1 seed, you know, you feel like you're the best team in your conference. You're supposed to be able to play anybody. If we were scared, we shouldn't be in this position."

The bravado is appreciated, and he's right. Any top seed sweating a specific matchup feels doomed to fail in the first place. But while there is something to be said for the rest and practice time the Sixers will get this week, head coach Doc Rivers believes the pressure of the play-in tournament will sharpen the focus of whichever team they might meet in round one.

"We're gonna play a tough opponent in the first round," Doc Rivers said on Sunday. "I don't know who it's gonna be, but they're going to be ready. They're going to be playoff-tested already, whoever it is. They would have played up to three games already, and so we would have had a week off, so we have to be ready out of the box."

So let's look beyond that short (and hopefully memorable) play-in tournament, and envision a playoff bracket that works best if you want the Sixers to win the title.

First-round

The preferable outcomes: 1A. Charlotte, 1B. Indiana, 3. Boston

"Kyle, you would invite a series with the Celtics? You're an idiot!" Throughout the year, I've heard lots of fans express fear about earning a date with the Celtics early in the playoffs. The recent playoff history is ugly, and I can't blame anyone for having some cosmic fear of the franchise that has tortured the Sixers historically.

This Celtics team is not like the others. Kemba Walker has looked like a shell of himself, Jaylen Brown was just ruled out for the season earlier this week, and their options to defend Joel Embiid are non-existent. Danny Ainge found it prudent to trade one of the only credible options (Daniel Theis) the team still possessed to defend Philly's MVP candidate, and anyone showing fear of the Celtics at this point is just telling me they haven't watched them much this year. If the Sixers can't beat this version of Boston, they're in big trouble.

I would still put them further down the list than the Hornets and Pacers, mind you, because at least the Celtics have a no-doubt star in Jayson Tatum. The Hornets are a fun team on the rise and LaMelo Ball has been an absolute delight to watch when he has been healthy this season, but they're a below-average team by basically any measure and if you're telling me the Sixers can go up against a group with basically no playoff experience, you take that opportunity and don't think twice. They might be slightly better than their record, but they should be dispatched with ease

Indiana, on the other hand, is just a complete disaster right now. Players are openly squabbling with assistant coaches in the middle of games, media leaks suggest they could part ways with head coach Nate Bjorkgren after just one season in charge. On paper, they theoretically have the frontcourt options to slow down Embiid. In practice, he has taken Myles Turner and thrown him in a trash compactor basically every time they've gone head-to-head. "Player mutiny against the coaching staff" and "Can't stop Joel Embiid" doesn't feel like a combination that can win a playoff series.

The "pain in the ass" option: Washington 

The Washington Wizards are not a very good basketball team. They are the furthest down the standings of all the teams in consideration for this spot, and their best player is currently nursing a hamstring issue. Why should the Sixers fear them?

Short answer: they shouldn't. But if you're talking about a team that might pose at least a hint of danger, one where a couple of high-level players could go nuclear and swing a game or two, the Wizards are a prime candidate. Bradley Beal has cooked everybody (including the Sixers!) this season, and Russell Westbrook has been better and healthier after getting his legs under him in Washington. And hey, maybe Davis Bertans gets inexplicably hot for a game or two. You never know.

It's this matchup where Rivers' use of Ben Simmons could end up mattering a little bit. Will he be content to have Simmons as a roaming defender off-ball instead of on Beal from the start? That was what allowed Beal to get going on the night of his 60 piece earlier this season. Rivers has continued to use that strategy throughout the season, turning Simmons loose on top players late in games, and that feels like asking for trouble if it continues in the playoffs. 

I don't expect anybody they could draw in round one to give them real problems. It's where they go from there that interests me.

Second round

Best option: Atlanta

Atlanta would not be a walkover if the Sixers drew them in the second round of the playoffs. They've been a considerably better defensive team since they made Nate McMillan the interim head coach (corresponding with a few important players getting healthy), the Trae Young/Clint Capela pick-and-roll will likely pose some problems for Embiid, and the Hawks are among the better offensive teams the Sixers could face in the Eastern Conference playoffs, almost certainly the best outside of the Milwaukee/Brooklyn tier.

But if Simmons is able to slow down Trae Young — and he should certainly be able to if he believes he's the Defensive Player of the Year — there are not many fear-inspiring creators on Atlanta. Is Bogdan Bogdanovic going to swing a series by himself? Small lineups that spread the floor with Danillo Galinari as a nominal big would be scarier if he had absolutely any prayer guarding Embiid at the other end. The same goes for John Collins, who I believe Tobias Harris can handle plenty well on defense with the strides he has taken this season.

I don't want to downplay McMillan's accumen as a coach, as he has clearly demonstrated that he can extract more from this young team than anyone would have expected midway through the year. But he has traditionally been a "play it safe" type coach who demands excellence in what the team runs but tends to stick to a more limited set of concepts. He's not an outside-the-box guy who will keep you guessing, and that suits the Sixers well. Atlanta should be easy to prepare for, and (relatively) easy to beat in a series.

Tough, but still favorable option: New York

There are some people who will look at a matchup with the Knicks as a series you want to avoid based on the premise that it will be a draining, physical series against a tough-minded group. It wouldn't be a walk in the park, but the Sixers should have basically no trepidation thinking about the Knicks. They've proven they can shut New York down on offense and absolutely do not have the bodies to deal with Embiid in the paint. The games being slogs might even be a good thing for the Sixers — a slow-paced series is not going to have Embiid tearing up and down the floor constantly, allowing him to save some mileage on his legs.

(On the flipside, those will be some tough freakin' miles even if the volume is low. But similar to McMillan, there's not much mystery to the Tom Thibodeau experience, and the Sixers have great options against New York's best players.)

I can't stress enough that Philadelphia was fortunate the way things broke in the seeding race. Miami was the toughest possible opponent they could have drawn in the first two rounds, and now it's impossible for them to draw the Heat until the Conference Finals. Considering that Miami would have to beat both of our next two teams to make that happen, I wouldn't worry about that matchup too much. And really, if they couldn't beat the Heat with homecourt advantage, they're a pretender in the first place.

Conference finals

Preferable, but not good: Milwaukee

Brooklyn being viewed as a strong favorite has allowed the Bucks to sort of hide in plain sight, but they should not be taken for granted as a threat to win the East. In fact, they might have a more credible case to beat Brooklyn in the second round than the Sixers would to beat the Nets in a potential conference finals matchup. Milwaukee has high-level, switchable defenders to throw at the core Brooklyn trio, an MVP-caliber talent who the Nets aren't as equipped to guard as other teams in the playoffs. 

We haven't gotten much of an indication of what Sixers-Bucks would look like at full strength this year thanks to unfortunate timing with injuries and illnesses, but the Sixers don't feel like the team to exploit Milwaukee's potential weaknesses, specifically on the tactical side of things. The Sixers are going to play their style of basketball, the Bucks will play theirs, and someone will emerge victorious. I wouldn't expect a major chess match.

One subplot that would be fascinating to watch play out is the Brook Lopez vs. Embiid battle. If the Bucks get the best version of Lopez in a series, you could sway me on the Bucks being a worse matchup. He's a good defender who also happens to be a willing three-point shooter, and dragging Embiid away from the paint is one way to compromise Philadelphia's base defense rather quickly. But Lopez has actually been a below-average shooter over the past two seasons, so the Sixers could ultimately choose to live or die with him bombing away.

Then there's the transition battle. The Bucks have scored the second-most points in transition of any team in the league this season, and the Sixers have defended in transition like a bottom feeder. Doc Rivers promised to dedicate time every day this week to getting things right there, but I don't expect the tiger to change its stripes after a season of poor results. They'll have to make these points up elsewhere.

That said, the Sixers have two good options to throw at Antetokounmpo, and the Bucks have wilted in big moments before, mostly because of how teams are able to defend Giannis in the halfcourt. You don't love facing them, but it's the better option.

The favorite to win the conference: Brooklyn 

Along with many other pundits, I view the Nets as the favorites to win the East and perhaps the whole thing depending on how the West shakes out (read: if the Lakers get their act together). The Nets have been an offensive juggernaut in spite of basically never having all three stars healthy at the same time, and even if you set aside Blake Griffin, they have done a good job of filling out the roster with useful depth in spite of the limitations imposed by the salary cap. Other players clearly viewed the Nets as a place where they could get minutes and have a reasonable chance to win a title, and the Nets have carried themselves like a group that is confident they can beat anybody in front of them.

For me, the issue in planning for the Nets is that even your best options are not ideal. Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle are credible covers for 2/3 of Durant/Harden/Irving. That leaves one of those guys for the likes of Tobias Harris or Danny Green to cover, and that's when you're fortunate enough to have Thybulle on the floor in the first place. Thybulle's shooting will matter much more in the deeper rounds — if he shoots well enough to stay on the floor, the Sixers might be able to stop anyone and everyone. Otherwise, teams are going to ignore him at pretty much all times, compounding the issues created by Simmons' absent jumper.

Of course, Embiid is the great equalizer in that series, perhaps capable of carrying them through troubled waters all by himself. Harris will be empowered to hunt switches early and often, another way the Sixers can hope to match firepower with their division rivals to the north. I'm just stuck on how exactly they stop this group — they only had to deal with Irving in the last matchup, and he took turns roasting Philadelphia's two best defenders on the perimeter. Harden was the one-man show and early in his Nets tenure in the second matchup between the teams this year, and a mediocre night still landed him 26-8-10 as their first (and really only) option. Stopping the Nets is going to be like trying to stop an avalanche.

There are reasons to be skeptical of this group. They haven't stayed healthy, they haven't built much chemistry with the full squad, they're not very good defensively, and the combustibility potential is high, given the personalities involved. They are far from perfect. But they've beaten a lot of good teams anyway, and in the short bursts we've seen of them together, hierarchy has not been a problem. Harden runs the show as the lead playmaker. As long as there is some semblance of order, they are a nightmare.

NBA Finals

We're sticking to half of the West for this one. The only team I feel bad not making a section for is Denver, who have the likely MVP and a better playoff pedigree than I think people seem to realize. Nikola Jokic has been great in the playoffs, and the only reason they're being left out is because I think Jamal Murray's absence will impact them much more in the postseason than it has so far. 

Decent matchups: Jazz, Suns 

Perhaps this turns into a, "Be careful what you wish for" scenario for Philly fans, but an Embiid-Gobert matchup in the Finals would just be tremendous. Or disastrous, if it turns out Embiid can't earn the upper hand in that battle, but any version of the Sixers that makes the Finals will be driven by an in-form Embiid, and I don't see him crumbling in the final stretch if that's the case.

The real reason I don't fear the Jazz is that I don't fear any team with Donovan Mitchell as the best perimeter player. The Sixers have had no reason to over the years — he's a career 35.4 percent shooter against Philadelphia, piling up points by volume only. Between Simmons and Thybulle at the point of attack and Embiid lurking near the basket, I trust they'd handle him.

Phoenix seems like a bad matchup in some respects, mostly because Devin Booker has torched them at times over the years. While Chris Paul doesn't have his young legs anymore, he's the sort of guy who could absolutely infuriate their perimeter defenders in a seven-game series. I have visions of Paul getting Matisse Thybulle to commit stupid fouls dancing in my head already.

However, many of their core guys are young-ish and/or inexperienced in the playoffs, and I don't think some of their preferred lineups would work against Philly. All due respect to "The Homie" Dario Saric, but his brand of small-ball center isn't going to fly against Embiid, and they don't really have a backup plan aside from playing DeAndre Ayton more minutes if that goes south.

Good luck: Clippers 

You may notice a running theme here if you lump this in with the Nets discussion, but I have very little confidence in the Sixers beating teams with multiple elite wings. Maybe I'm discounting the "Doc Rivers revenge series" angle a bit too much here, but they had a hard enough time stopping Paul George when he was a mere one-man show in mid-April. How bad does it get when Kawhi Leonard plays, too? 

Who the hell knows: Lakers

Your guess is as good as mine as to how good the Lakers actually are this season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have both been out for a considerable chunk of this season, long enough to let L.A. fall into the play-in games this week. It's unlikely, but not impossible that they could miss the playoffs entirely. Even then, they're left with a tough road to travel just to make the Finals.

But I have one guiding belief that has served me well for most of the last decade: never count out a team that has LeBron on it. Between Marc Gasol's ability to pose problems for Embiid, the LeBron problem, and the usual reverence reigning champions deserve, you can bet the Lakers would be formidable if they're good enough to reach the Finals to begin with. 


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