If the Philadelphia 76ers don’t win the NBA championship this season, there’s a good chance they’ll wind up looking back at a seemingly innocuous January trip to Brooklyn as the reason why. In only their ninth game of the season, the Sixers had a golden opportunity to gain ground on their Atlantic Division rivals, the souped-up Nets, under the absolute perfect circumstances. They knew Kevin Durant would miss the game, but another stroke of fortune came hours before tip when it was announced that Kyrie Irving would miss the first of seven consecutive games for personal reasons. James Harden hadn’t been acquired yet. All the Sixers had to do was knock off Caris LeVert and Joe Harris and they’d start the season with a sizable lead in the conference and one of the two wins they’d need to secure the regular-season tiebreaker over Brooklyn.
They couldn’t pull it off. The Nets protected their home court in a 122-109 victory that set the stage for Wednesday’s clash of the titans. Had Philadelphia just managed to beat Brooklyn’s backups, it would hold a two-game advantage in the loss column over the Nets right now with the tiebreaker clinched. That wouldn’t guarantee home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, but it would tilt the odds significantly in their favor.
But now? They’ll take on a healthier and reinforced Nets roster that may not include the injured Harden, but should at least feature Durant and possibly Irving as well. They’ll do so for the highest stakes the regular season can offer: conference supremacy. With less than 20 games left on the schedule, the Nets and 76ers are tied atop the Eastern Conference standings at 37-17. They’ve split their first two head-to-head matchups. That means that the winner will not only gain a game in the standings, but the tiebreaker as well, which functions as another win. Put more simply, the winner of this game is probably going to be the No. 1 seed in the East, and in this specific season, that matters a great deal.
After all, traveling is Philadelphia’s kryptonite. The 76ers are 29-38 on the road over the past two seasons, but a staggering 51-9 at home. In that span, they’ve lost only four games in Philadelphia that Joel Embiid participated in. The 76ers would be underdogs against the Nets under any circumstance, but their odds of winning a Game 7 increase dramatically if that game is played on their home floor. Of course, they’d hope to avoid that scenario altogether, and the top seed would give them a reasonable chance at doing so.
The Eastern Conference has only three true contenders. The No. 1 seed would currently be slated to play the winner of a series between the 30-25 Hawks and the 28-26 Heat in the second round. The No. 2 seed gets Milwaukee, and the Bucks, by many measures, have been the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season team.
With almost three-quarters of the season now in the books, Milwaukee has the East’s best net rating at plus-6.2. Its losses are largely explainable circumstantially. The Bucks traded most of their depth to get Jrue Holiday and then lost five games in a row when he caught COVID-19. They have a 9-11 record in clutch games, yet they have the eighth-best clutch net rating in the NBA at plus-7.6. This suggests that they’ve been the victims of some bad luck, which holds up anecdotally. Milwaukee has lost 20 total games, and 20 percent of those losses have been by a single possession. Shots like this aren’t sustainable:
Injuries and limited depth have weakened the regular-season Bucks. Their postseason prospects are far brighter. Beating one contender is significantly easier than beating two. Wednesday’s loser will likely have to go seven rounds with the Bucks just to earn the privilege of a rematch. There’s no guarantee they do that. The Durant-Irving-Harden trio has played just seven games together and might not be able to develop championship-level chemistry by the second round. Joel Embiid might be a nightmare matchup for Brooklyn, but Giannis Antetokounmpo could wipe him off the board before the Eastern Conference finals even begin.
These advantages likely mean more to the underdog 76ers, which works out nicely for them, as their road to home court becomes significantly easier if they can just make it through this game. After Wednesday’s battle, they’ll have three more home games left on their schedule than Brooklyn. They have the NBA’s 17th-hardest remaining schedule. Brooklyn’s is eighth, and the Nets have prioritized health over regular-season winning. Their raw talent engenders confidence. The Nets can win anywhere.
The Sixers’ own record suggests that they can’t, but fortunately, Wednesday’s battle will take place in Philadelphia. It’s fitting. The team that needs home-court advantage more than any other will have a chance to play for it on its own floor against a team it couldn’t beat on the road even without its best players. That first Nets game proved how vulnerable the 76ers will be if they have to play four postseason games in Brooklyn. This last Nets game matters as their chance to avoid doing so.
With the rest of the East absent from the championship picture and the entire West scrambling to avoid the Lakers in the first round, there won’t be a single game left in this regular season with such clear and immediate stakes. If the Sixers do win the championship this July, they’ll likely look back at this game as the launching point for their title run.
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