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With an eye on the Conference’s top seed, Sixers must evade a slew of boobytrap games

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Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

As you’ve probably heard the Sixers have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA based on their upcoming opponent’s winning percentage, and while they have clinched the playoffs, they still trail the Brooklyn Nets by one game in the standings which will determine home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. What’s it all mean? It means that the schedule is now riddled with “trap games.” It’s perhaps tempting for the 76ers to take their foot off the pedal after throttling a team by 44 points! But they cannot afford to do that. Not with so much at stake.

So you can bet your buttons that the team’s head coach is urging his players not to take the franchise that once drafted Doc Rivers 31st overall in 1983 for granted. It’s been 38 years since Atlanta took Doc in the second round. And that also happens to be the same number of years since the Sixers last won an NBA championship. And with that goal in mind they must not let up.

As of now the Hawks have quite a few questions marks, although it seems like a real possibility they’ll have at least one of their key shooters back by Friday if Kevin Huerter, Trae Young and Tony Snell are taking shots today:

Interesting to note here is the absence of their sweet-shooting combo guard Bogdan Bogdanović who is dealing with a hamstring. If you’ll recall, in the first couple of games the team was without their star Trae Young, who has missed the last four games nursing a lateral ankle sprain, Bogi went off. In two upset victories, the Serbian National star helped Atlanta defeat the Miami Heat (handily) and the surging Milwaukee Bucks. If Bogdanović is out for Friday’s game that will be a lift to the Sixers chances:

Of course, some Sixer fans are so confident in this matchup they decided to egg Young on last night:

If I were in attendance, I’d not have poked that 6’1, 178-pound bear, but that’s just me.

Whatever version of themselves the Hawks trot (flap?) out there, it’s a monster game for the Sixers in terms of standings. I’m not sure which one of these upcoming games gives the Sixers trouble, but with the exception of Miami they all feel like “trap game” possibilities, don’t they?

Which one of those games, besides Miami, would you fear the most? The Pelicans embarrassed Philly last time they met, although now the contest will be in South Philly. But the Bulls, Pistons, and Magic will all “enjoy” getting to play the Sixers on the second of a back-to-back, and who knows how Daryl and Doc will elect to play/rest their core for the jam-packed grind.

I cannot count on my hands the number of times I turned on a game this season having heard that multiple stars were out, stupidly figured the outcome wouldn’t be close, and then was proven wrong. And a handful of those were outright upsets. It’s just a wacky season. Little will surprise me however this shakes out.

(I just remembered that it will be theoretically possible for a 10th seed to win the NBA title this year given the awesome WNBA style play-in tourney they’ve added).

The top competition, on the other hand, the Brooklyn Nets and their one-game lead have a brutal slate. They’re in Indiana tonight pretty short-handed. James Harden is out with a significant hamstring issue he has reaggravated twice now, and the team has admitted they’re not certain he’ll even be ready for the start of the playoffs. That may not be a big deal if they were to find themselves hosting the Hornets, for example. But what if they wound up dropping a seed or two and had to host the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics? Then they might start to miss Harden quite a bit. And if they still got it done, then they’d likely have to tangle with Milwaukee which may be no picnic either. Seeding here could play a vital role in determining the eventual champion.

Nic Claxton is out, Kyrie Irving is out with a sore groin, and Bruce Brown is out too. Unfortunately for the Sixers, the Pacers are missing their All-Star Domantas Sabonis, and their Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Myles Turner. So Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Landry Shamet should be sufficient to push their lead up to a game and a half.

But then things get tough for a team who isn’t very healthy:

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Nets ripped through their schedule and locked up home court. But given how cautious they have been with Kevin Durant (who is on a minutes restriction and not playing in back-to-backs) it would be even less surprising if they took a couple of losses down the stretch and opened the door for Philadelphia.

Coach Rivers will do his best not to allow his players to think about all of these things. Hopefully, he’s got some underdog narratives at the ready so his team is on the lookout for landmines, booby traps, and bunny snares. They need to execute like the Conference’s top team if they want to beat out the Brooklyn Nets for home court throughout the Playoffs. The idea that the road to the finals goes through South Philly is a very enticing one. It’s the NFL Draft tonight, so as Bill Belichick might mumble miserably, “we’re onto Atlanta, that’s our focus right now.”