With the NBA season returning, the teams involved will be focused not only on the last eight regular season games, but the playoffs to follow. The Sixers, who are currently the sixth seed in the East, will have the chance to rise as high as the third seed.
Now that the season will be finishing in Orlando, home-field advantage won’t be a factor. What does still matter is match-ups. The Sixers will most likely have to face both the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks if they reach the finals, but an easy first round match-up could help them rest for the future rounds.
But who is the ideal match-up? Boston? Indiana? Miami?
3. Miami Heat
The Heat may be the least talented of the three teams but there are two major factors working against the Sixers in this match-up, coaching and Jimmy Butler.
Erik Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the NBA and has been for some time. He manages to get the most out of his players like few other than Gregg Popovich can. Spoelstra ranks 27th all time in regular season wins and 15th in playoff wins. His resume speaks for itself, and the Sixers have a particular weakness against good coaching. Spoelstra knows how to use his players like chess pieces and can maximize match-ups defensively to put his team in the best position to win. He will do what he can to throw Simmons and Embiid off their game so the rest of the roster has to beat them.
Jimmy Butler is also not an ideal match-up for the Sixers. Few players are built like Butler but as a team, the Heat are a perfect fit for him. The organization has a tendency of fielding tough-nosed players who will grind until the final buzzer, and that fits Jimmy Butler to a T. Butler has shown to be extremely motivated especially against any of his former teams. Aside from averaging over 20 points against the Sixers this season, Butler is a terror defensively, and like Coach Spoelstra, Butler is able to push the team mentally beyond their normal talent.
If the Sixers were to face the Heat they would likely win the series but the team would surely be gassed. This Heat team is not one to be swept, the best case scenario would be an especially exhausting six game series. It’s not that the Sixers would be eliminated but they would have no energy to face Milwaukee or Toronto.
2. Boston Celtics
Brad Stevens, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, three thorns traditionally in the Sixers’ side. The Sixers and Celtics have a long and heated rivalry that’s been dominated by Boston as of late. Whether it be coaching, drafting, or playing head-to-head, the Celtics have been the more successful of the two teams.
Stevens has a 23-10 record against the Sixers since becoming the head coach in Boston. Whether regular season or playoffs, Stevens has the Sixers figured out. His performance against the Sixers during the 2018 playoffs was objectively masterful. Like Spoelstra, Stevens is typically four or five steps ahead of the competition, usually at the expense of the Sixers.
Jayson Tatum’s very name has a sour taste in the mouths of Sixers fans. The Celtics traded the 2018 first overall pick to the Sixers and when the dust cleared the Celtics had a young star in Jayson Tatum and a first-round pick and the Sixers had Markelle Fultz. Tatum has averaged almost 18 points per game against the Sixers ever since and is a well rounded player that could spell trouble for the Sixers in the playoffs.
Likewise, Kemba Walker has had his fair share of success against the Sixers averaging close to 22 points per game over his career. Walker even posted his career high of 60 points against the Sixers. Walker hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2016 so no matter who he plays, expect him to be hungry.
While history is on Boston’s side, the tide may finally be turning. The Sixers won the series three to one this season and one key has been the Al Horford shaped hole on the Celtics roster. While he hasn’t performed as expected for the Sixers, the void he left in Boston is obvious. The Sixers would stand a good chance against Boston given their regular season success this year but the Playoffs are a different animal.
1. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers would be the ideal match-up for the Sixers for three reasons: coaching, experience, and health. Though the Pacers beat the Sixers in two of the three games played so far, both wins came during the Sixers’ alleged identity crisis earlier this season. The Sixers will resume their season against the Pacers and that game would be very telling for the playoffs.
The Pacers are also the only team that the Sixers would have a coaching advantage against. For his career, Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan is 17-32 in the playoffs. Though he is experienced, he hasn’t exactly been successful. McMillan has done a good job this season leading a squad that has missed their star, Victor Oladipo, most of the season. In spite of that, there’s no reason to fear McMillan in the playoffs.
The Pacers are also far from the most experienced team. Over the past five seasons they have made the playoffs four times but they’ve lost in the first round each and every time. They were even swept twice in that time. Though the Sixers have only made the playoffs twice in the past seven years, this season will represent three consecutive appearances and the Sixers have advanced to the second round two years in a row.
The other factor that would work in the Sixers favor is the unfortunate reality of injuries. The Sixers are quite familiar with injuries but for once, it would work in their favor. The Pacers are without Jeremy Lamb for the remainder of the season and Victor Oladipo is coming off of a ruptured quad. Though he’s had ample time to recover and scored an impressive 27 points against Boston before the season was suspended, there will likely be a solid amount of rust that Oladipo in particular will need to knock off. The fact is, the Pacers are missing one starter and another is recovering while both Boston and Miami are essentially at full health.
The Sixers should make some noise no matter who they play but there is clearly a preferred match-up. The Sixers will have to climb their way up the standings during these last eight games and hope the rest falls into place.
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