March 22, 2023
The Sixers are in a dogfight for positioning at the top of the Eastern Conference, in a year where homecourt advantage could be the difference between another early exit and the first deep playoff run for Philadelphia in 20+ years. Three games back of the Bucks with a few weeks left in the season, is it realistic to expect the Sixers to make a run for the No. 1 seed, or even hold off Boston for No. 2 in the conference?
Let's take a look at their schedules in the final weeks of the year and assess where everyone is at.
Remaining games (11): vs. San Antonio, @ Utah, @ Denver, @ Detroit, @ Indiana, vs. Boston, vs. Philadelphia, @ Washington, vs. Chicago, vs. Memphis, @ Toronto
Back-to-backs remaining: 3
Rest days: 8
Season series tiebreakers: 1-1 vs. Boston, 1-2 vs. Philadelphia
Milwaukee's biggest advantage is the one they created for themselves — the Bucks have the best record of the three teams, and would have to lose three more times this season to even have a chance of tiebreakers coming into play. That is a big deal because they're also the only team with more than one game left against what we'll call the tanking division. Games against San Antonio and Detroit are basically the equivalent of the Free Parking space on a Monopoly board. Never say never, of course, but those are two you should be able to put in the bank right now.
All their tough stretches come with caveats. Utah/Denver is one of the less daunting road travel back-to-backs, though the Jazz have remained frisky despite trading away a handful of their vets at the deadline. A road date with the Pacers prior to a home battle with Boston puts minimal flight stress on the Bucks, but having to face the Celtics with a rest disadvantage and the season series on the line is rough. And some of these games are harder on paper than they are in practice, most notably their meeting with Memphis on April 7, as it's possible the Grizzlies are locked into a seed and playing for nothing by that point.
If you're looking at this from a Philadelphia perspective, the Celtics meeting on March 30 has competing arguments for rooting interest that we'll see clearer closer to that date. On the one hand, Boston beating Milwaukee would give the Sixers a more realistic path to the No. 1 seed, adding a loss to the Bucks' total during a run that might not produce many more of those. But if the Bucks look uncatchable by that point, there might be a lot of people donning the cream and green of the Bucks in the hope that they can help Philadelphia stay in front of Boston for the No. 2 seed, locking down homecourt for a critical second-round matchup.
I think the Bucks win at least seven of their final 11 games (Spurs, Jazz, Pistons, Pacers, Wizards, and Bulls are a quick six) and settle in at 58-24 or better.
Remaining games (9): vs. Indiana, vs. San Antonio, @ Washington, @ Milwaukee, vs. Utah, @ Philadelphia, vs. Toronto (x2), vs. Atlanta
Back-to-backs remaining: 2
Rest days: 10
Season series tiebreakers: 1-1 vs. Milwaukee, 3-0 vs. Philadelphia
Boston's reward for a more condensed schedule earlier this season is a relatively light closing stretch, though sometimes I wonder if NBA schedule makers even look at a calendar while they're putting this thing together. At the end of March, the Celtics play a road/home back-to-back against the Bucks and Jazz, get three days off, and then immediately play another road/home back-to-back against the Sixers and Raptors. There surely had to be a better way to set that up.
The much-ballyhooed decline for the Celtics in recent weeks has basically come down to two factors — shooting and health. The triumvirate of Al Horford, Robert Williams III, and Marcus Smart has been in and out of the lineup, and it's probably no coincidence that Boston laid a beatdown on the Kings to close out their recent road trip with all three of those guys in the lineup. When Boston is whole, they're a tough team who can come at you in waves, and their ability to play Williams in an ultra-big frontcourt with Horford gives them a bit of versatility dependent on matchups.
(That versatility is basically useless in a matchup with the Sixers, mind you, as Embiid ignoring Williams threw a wrench in the gears of that look in the last meeting. I digress.)
If we assume the Celtics are reasonably healthy heading into the final stretch, Jayson Tatum's extended shooting slump is probably the more noteworthy angle. Numbers from the last couple of seasons suggest Tatum is a high-volume shooter with average-ish efficiency from deep, and he has been below average for the majority of this season, shooting 33.4 percent from three from December 1 onward. Jaylen Brown has only been slightly better during that time period, with the Celtics needing high marks from their role players (Al Horford and Malcolm Brogdon, most notably) to cope with that problem.
For that reason, three matchups intrigue me between now and the end of the year — the Bucks and Sixers games, and the pair of meetings with Toronto. The Philadelphia and Milwaukee ones are obvious, but I am curious to see if Toronto's switch-friendly personnel succeeds in taking away the three-point line from Boston. There's a decent chance that contenders will switch everything against Boston in the playoffs, betting that the Celtics can't create enough pressure on the rim if they do so. We could get an early preview of that in all four of those games.
Conservatively, I think the Celtics should win at least 6/9 — give them the Pacers, Spurs, Wizards, Jazz, and Hawks games, plus a split in the Toronto meetings (those back-to-backs against one team are always thorny). Even if they lose both meetings against the Bucks and Sixers, that puts them at 56-26. I think that feels like a fair baseline, with room for another win or two.
Remaining games (11): @ Chicago, @ Golden State, @ Phoenix, @ Denver, vs. Dallas, vs. Toronto, @ Milwaukee, vs. Boston, vs. Miami, @ Atlanta, @ Brooklyn
Back-to-backs remaining: 2
Rest days: 8
Season series tiebreakers: 2-1 vs. Milwaukee, 0-3 vs. Boston
So aside from having the toughest remaining strength of schedule for the entire NBA, the most road games left between these three teams (7), a lingering injury concern for James Harden, and not a single "gimmie" game the rest of the year, everything is falling into place for the Sixers. Projecting weeks ahead with the uncertainty around Harden right now is pretty tough, so let's just assume he only misses a game or two at most and try to assess this as if Harden will be mostly (or completely) healthy for the stretch run. It's tough to spin this as a golden opportunity for Philadelphia when all three teams at the top of the conference have the same opportunity to play one another, with the Sixers needing to play a much tougher surrounding schedule.
Looking for silver linings, Philadelphia's best hope is that many of their upcoming games are against teams dealing with health or personnel issues of their own. The Warriors have been a very good home team but are kind of just a disaster this year. The Suns without Kevin Durant are thin, though I still think beating them on a back-to-back traveling from San Francisco is a big ask. Dallas' big two of Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic is banged up right now. Even Denver, with a matchup that may well decide the NBA MVP award, has tailed off late in the season, with little motivation to rev it up thanks to their wiggle room at the top of the Western Conference.
The problem they'll run into is that every team they play should be motivated for different reasons. Golden State and Dallas need to try to avoid being play-in teams, the same of which could be said about Brooklyn, Miami, and Atlanta, the three final teams that Philly will face in the regular season. March is where motivation goes to die around the NBA, but you could make an argument that every team left on the schedule will have some juice, some reason to dial it up (except for maybe Atlanta, a team perpetually unable to get it out of second gear this season).
On the other side of it, I think the Sixers are flat-out better than most of the teams they have left to play. If we are just lining them up and saying whether they should win on paper, I think they should beat Chicago, Golden State, Denver, Dallas, Toronto, Miami, Atlanta, and Brooklyn. Throw out the Phoenix schedule defeat and split the Celtics/Bucks games and that puts their realistic ceiling around 9-2 to end the year, or 57-25 when it's all said and done.
Based on how we've laid it out, it would seem to make Milwaukee fairly uncatchable at the top, even if the Sixers can gain a full game in the standings (and a season-long tiebreaker) by beating them on April 2. Getting to that 57-win mark is almost certainly going to be more difficult than I've made it seem there, but you could say that about all of the records listed here, as there will certainly be some bad losses sprinkled between these teams before the year ends. In the last week, this trio has lost to the Pacers, Jazz, and Bulls respectively.
All I'm hoping for is some meaningful basketball during this run, and it appears as though we'll get it.
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