Why the Sixers Must Remain Focused on the First Seed

NBA: APR 09 76ers at Pelicans
NEW ORLEANS, LA – APR 09: New Orleans Pelicans center Willy Hernangomez (9) fouls Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) during a NBA game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Philadelphia 76ers at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, LA on Apr 09, 2021. (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire)

Despite holding control of the first seed for nearly the entire year, the Sixers no longer lead the Eastern Conference. A four-game losing streak, including back-to-back losses against the Bucks, has sunk the Sixers to one and a half games behind the Brooklyn Nets. With twelve games left to play, the Sixers must prepare for a final push to overtake first place. Their season has been extremely successful so far, but gaining this advantage in seeding could prove to be the key to the Sixers’ postseason success.

Home Court Advantage

The Sixers (39-21) have a record of 22-7 at home so far this season. This 75.9% win percentage at the Wells Fargo Center is extremely impressive and ranks third in the NBA. While it is still may be much better than their 17-14 road record this season, the Sixers have cut the margin in the difference between home and away from last season.

The 2019-20 Sixers were ranked third among all-time teams in the worst away record relative to their home record. Despite a largely disappointing season, the Sixers had a ridiculous 28-2 record at home last year. On the negative side of things, the Sixers had a 9-22 record on the road (prior to the bubble). This 64.3% increase in winning percentage at home trails only 1951-52 Pacers and 1954-55 Celtics for all time differential. While Brett Brown was thrown under the bus for the lack of road production, the Sixers have traditionally found more success at home.

As the increased availability of vaccines continues to drive the return to normalcy, increased amounts of fans have been allowed back into arenas. As it stands, the city of Philadelphia has allowed for 20% capacity at Sixers games. Even this small amount of fans has made their presence felt and this number is only going to increase as the playoffs progress. Securing the first seed, and thus the home-court advantage that goes with it could prove to be a major benefit in each seven-game series.

Previewing Sixers’ Matchups

It is important to note the change in seeding that has been made for this condensed season. Rather than the traditional top eight seeds matching up, there is a play-in tournament that opens up two additional seeds.

As the NBA officially describes its structure– “At the conclusion of the regular season but before the first round of the playoffs, the team with the 7th-highest winning percentage in each conference will host the team with the 8th-highest winning percentage in a Play-In Game (the “Seven-Eight Game”). The winner of the Seven-Eight Game in each conference will earn the No. 7 seed. The team with the 9th-highest winning percentage in each conference will host the team with the 10th-highest winning percentage in the “Nine-Ten Game”. The loser of the Seven-Eight Game will host the winner of the Nine-Ten Game in a Play-In Game, and the winner of that game in each conference will earn the No. 8 seed.”

Sixers as One Seed:

If the Sixers are able to once again secure first place in the East, they have a significantly easier path through the postseason. As the standings currently sit, the Indiana Pacers (28-31) and Washington Wizards (27-33) will first face-off in the play-in tournament. The winner of this game will take on the loser of the seventh and eighth seed matchup. This would currently be a matchup between the Miami Heat (32-29) and Charlotte Hornets (30-30).

The winner of the matchup between Mia/Cha loser and Was/Ind winner would then be the Sixers who takes on the first seed. It is also worth noting that the Boston Celtics are tied in record with the Miami Heat and are in the sixth seed only by a tiebreaker so these matchups are far from set in stone.

While the Sixers would certainly be favorites over all of these teams, there certainly will be some rooting interest for what the matchup might end up. Facing a Miami team who lost in the finals last season, and the inevitable Jimmy Butler revenge tour would be far from a cakewalk for a first-round matchup. It also would bring up some bad memories if they face the Boston Celtics, who swept the Sixers in the first round of the playoffs last season.

Perhaps even more noteworthy is the second-round matchup as the first seed. Assuming they advance from the first round, the Sixers would then play the winner of the 4th and 5th seeds. This seems likely to be the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks, which are both winnable matchups for the Sixers. Barring any upsets, the Sixers would then face the winner of the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks series in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Sixers as Two or Three Seed:

If they are unable to make up the 1.5 games they sit behind the Nets, the Sixers face a more challenging postseason path. In the first round, they would face the winner of the 7th and 8th seeded matchups. This will the winner of the lower seed out of the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics against the Charlotte Hornets. They will then face the winner of the 3rd and 6th seed matchups, which would currently be the Milwaukee Bucks and the higher seed of the Heat or Celtics.

Having to go through a seven-game series with the Bucks and the Nets in order to get to the finals is an extremely challenging task. Even though the Sixers were shorthanded this weekend, the Bucks took care of business in both matchups against them and further solidified their spot as legitimate contenders.

The Sixers have a fairly easy schedule for the remainder of the season and are seemingly in a tighter race with the Nets for first place. With the Bucks seemingly a lock to finish as the three seed, this means the main difference between the paths is if the Sixers have to face Milwaukee or not. While the Knicks and Hawks are both solid teams, both are far from the contenders of the three teams above them in the Eastern Conference.

There are twelve more remaining games on the Sixers’ schedule so they will enter their final stretch of the regular season. Ensuring the team gets fully healthy must remain the priority as it is important for the Sixers to be at full strength entering the playoffs. This is the highest title hopes have been in Philly for some time, and climbing back to the one seed may be a drastic step toward getting closer to this.

Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire