The Sixers have done it. They are the East’s top seed for the first time in nearly two decades. But ask any player, coach, or fan, and they would tell you the real push starts Sunday.
We now know the Sixers’ first-round opponent will be the Washington Wizards. The Sixers swept the season series. Perhaps the best news to come out of the end of the season — other than ending injury-free — was how the bracket shaped out.
With the NBA play-in tournament nearing a close, the Sixers know their opponent. It’s time to look ahead to the actual NBA Playoffs.
Miami was the most dangerous potential first-round matchup for the Sixers, but they now get a rematch of last year’s first-round with Milwaukee. The second most troubling first-round matchup would have been Boston, but their win over Washington assured that Jayson Tatum would be facing off against the three-headed monster that is the Brooklyn Nets.
The Sixers could not have asked for a better bracket besides playing the Hornets in the first round. Rather than having to play Miami, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn to get to the NBA Finals, the Sixers face a path of Washington, New York/Atlanta, then whoever comes out of the loaded bottom half of the bracket.
The opening round of the playoffs should not trouble the Sixers. Perhaps they will drop a game or two, but in general, they should not be tested.
Their potential second-round opponents continue the same story.
New York is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Led by the NBA’s Most Improved Player Julius Randle, the Knicks are just happy to be in the conversation. Securing the four-seed and having a home-court advantage in the Garden is an added bonus. Should they beat the Hawks, the Knicks should not be a problem for the 76ers.
In fact, Philadelphia has won 15 straight games against New York, including 3 wins this season. Two games were close on the scoresheet, however. But if we look at those games further, it’s clear the Sixers could have handled their business with less fuss. Namely, the Sixers were missing Seth Curry, Joel Embiid, or both of the starters. Tony Bradley started the games in place of the potential league MVP. Of course, everything with Philadelphia runs through Embiid, and the Knicks are without their starting center Mitchell Robinson for the rest of the season. The task to defend the big man falls to former Sixer Nerlens Noel, who Embiid has no problem overpowering.
If the 76ers were to face the Hawks, it might be slightly more challenging, but the two teams only met once at full force this season. Philadelphia won two, one of which the Hawks were without Trae Young and the other Philadelphia handled easily. Philly’s lone loss came in a game where Dakota Mathias logged nearly 40 minutes in the 11th game of the year.
Defensively speaking, the Hawks provided a tougher matchup for the Sixers’ powerful frontcourt with John Collins and Clint Capela. However, the Hawks get poor defensive performances from their guards, meaning if Seth Curry and Danny Green are shooting well, it could be a quick series.
On the other side of the ball, the Sixers have always struggled to defend quick guards like Trae Young, but with the emergence of Mattisse Thybulle as an All-NBA caliber defender, this could change. A tougher matchup, but still an easily winnable one.
Philadelphia could not have asked for a better route to reach their first Eastern Conference Finals since they secured their last one seed in 2001. The stage is set; now it’s time for the top-seed to perform like one.