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How the East was won: 76ers on the brink of home court, plus the rest of the East playoff landscape

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Detroit Pistons v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The 76ers regular-season goal is within reach. With a win this evening in Indiana, they can clinch home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The same can also be accomplished if both the Bucks (hosting Orlando, so probably not gonna happen) and Nets (at Chicago) were to lose. Joel Embiid (non-COVID illness) is listed as a game-time decision, Matisse Thybulle (hand) and Furkan Korkmaz (ankle) are both listed as out. The Sixers are favored this evening by 6 points, although it seems likely that would change if “The Process” were to take a game off.

If the Sixers do not win in Indiana, they’ll still have three swings of the bat to get that all-important win against Miami, or in one of the two bouts vs. the lottery-bound Orlando Magic.

So it appears as if (knock wood) the Sixers will lock up the one seed soon. The 2nd and 3rd seeds are very much up for grabs between Brooklyn and Milwaukee following the Bucks’ trouncing at the hand of the Spurs last night. But it should be between those two teams in one order or another.

The next tier below the big three includes the Hawks, Knicks, and Heat, all within 1 game of each other. If you felt like doing some scoreboard watching, in addition to the Bucks and Nets, you might also keep an eye on the Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics game.

With 37 wins total, having won 5 of their last 6, Miami is making a late push to avoid the play in the tournament. Currently, in 6th place, they’re only 1 game behind the Knicks (now in the 4th seed) and possess the tie-breaker between those two groups. The Atlanta Hawks, winners of 4 of their last 5, are also surging. They sit between New York and Miami in 5th place and seem to have the inside track for the 4th seed since their remaining schedule all at home (Wash, Wash, Orl, Hou) appears a bit easier than either the Knicks’ (at Lal, Sas, Cha, Bos) or the Heat’s (at Bos, Phi, at Mil, at Det).

Boston, as noted hosts Miami this evening, and will finish with a road trip taking their now short-handed crew to Cleveland, Minnesota, and finally to New York. Tough sledding.

It may make you physically ill with a non-COVID illness to root for 7th seeded Boston but I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world for Philly if the Heat took an L tonight.

This writer’s preference for the Sixers’ first and second-round matchups would not involve last season’s Eastern Conference Champions. We know they have had much of their season derailed by a rash of injuries and pandemic protocol hurdles. But now mostly healthy (except for Victor Oladipo who has a less-than-clear timetable to return) and with talents like Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, and some high-end shooters like Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic, and Duncan Robinson, they would be a tough draw if they dropped all the way down to an 8th seed in the first round. And they wouldn’t be much fun in the second round if they sneaked into the 5th seed and “upset” the Hawks or Knicks.

Feel free to join me in rooting against Miami down the stretch here.

Miami may catch a couple of breaks as well. Facing the Celtics this evening, Jaylen Brown has just been ruled out for the season with a wrist injury. From there, the Heat might well get to host a Sixers team Thursday, fresh off clinching home-court advantage. Who knows how Doc Rivers may elect to thread the needle between “keeping fresh” and “managing loads” if the Sixers locked up home court.

It would not be a surprise if some key Sixers got a night off down in South Beach. Doc Rivers as coach of the Celtics did lose a game seven in Los Angeles during the finals back in 2010. It wouldn’t shock me if that life experience had him keeping an eye on his former Clippers squad. The Clips have 45 wins, two less than the Sixers, although they’re favorites to come out of the West per some sportsbooks. Doc may want to maintain a lead over them as well, just in case the two were to meet in the finals.

Milwaukee gets to host the Heat still. If everyone were to play, Milwaukee would be favored. But it seems as if every other game now one team elects not to play half their roster, doesn’t it? Milwaukee possesses a tie-breaker over the Brooklyn Nets. So if the Bucks were to win their final four games (Orl, Ind, Mia, Chi) and the Nets were to lose one of their final four (Chi, Sas, Chi, Cle) then the Bucks could move up into the 2nd seed, earning the chance to host the Nets in round two. As of now, barring upsets, Brooklyn would host the Bucks in the second round.

Sorting for final record projection, here is how 538 predicts the East to finish:

  1. Sixers
  2. Nets
  3. Bucks
  4. Hawks
  5. Knicks
  6. Heat
  7. Celtics (play-in tourney)
  8. Wizards (play-in tourney)
  9. Hornets (play-in tourney)
  10. Pacers (play-in tourney)

Here is how I’ll be rooting this evening: I hope the Knicks beat the Lakers. LeBron James is [updated] not expected to make his return this evening after aggravating the high ankle sprain that cost him a chunk of games and perhaps even an MVP award. It appeared that he considered it...

but ultimately decided to wait another game:

The Hawks beating the Wizards (no Bradley beal, hamstring) would be nice because if Atlanta and the Knicks earned the 4 and 5 seeds respectively, that would squeeze the Heat into the other half of the tourney bracket and force Erik Spoelstra’s crew onto Milwaukee or Brooklyn in round one (as long as they didn’t drop all the way down to the 8th seed).

If I had my way, I’d get an upset in Chicago. I wouldn’t mind as many things going wrong for Brooklyn as possible, although I have my doubts about Coby White, Zach LaVine and company getting it done against Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Anyway, plenty of scoreboards to keep an eye on. But the one that really matters is in Indiana. Go Sixers.