76ers Games That Will Determine 2021 NBA Playoff Seeding

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 15, 2021

76ers Games That Will Determine 2021 NBA Playoff Seeding

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    With 17 games remaining on their 2020-21 season, the Philadelphia 76ers control their destiny.

    They assured as much with Wednesday's 123-117 triumph over the Brooklyn Nets, giving Philadelphia sole possession of first place in the NBA's Eastern Conference.

    But with the Nets just one game behind, and the Milwaukee Bucks 2.5 games back of Brooklyn, the Sixers can't afford to catch their breath. They're only a few stretch-run stumbles away from sliding from first to third in the standings, which could dramatically increase the difficulty level of their postseason path.

    While every game carries a certain must-win feeling this time of year, the following three just might shape where Philadelphia lands when the curtains close on this campaign.

Thursday, April 22: At Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Wednesday's win over the Nets gave the Sixers that season series by a 2-1 count, which can be important if tiebreakers are needed to separate these squads.

    This game, then, is about evening the score with a Milawukee Bucks team that scratched out a 109-105 overtime win the only time these teams have met this season.

    Joel Embiid missed that contest, and just about all of Philly's non-centers struggled with their shots. Ben Simmons had more shots (16) than points (13). So did Tobias Harris (23 to 19) and Seth Curry (11 to 10). It's no minor miracle that Philly forced an extra session, especially when it had zero answers for two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (32 points on 13-of-22 shooting).

    Could the Sixers reverse their fortunes here? Well, it isn't clear if Antetokounmpo will be ready to return from a knee injury by then, and even if he is, the Sixers will be better equipped to stop him with Embiid anchoring the interior.

Saturday, April 24: At Milwaukee Bucks

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Between Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, the Sixers are set for the softest landing with the easiest remaining schedule of the trio, per Tankathon.com. So, yes, we are more than comfortable with doubling up on the Bucks-Sixers scuffles here.

    If Philadelphia captures the first contest, this one will be for all the marbles in terms of the season series. Since head-to-head records are the first tiebreaker, it's impossible to overstate the significance of claiming victory in the three-game set.

    For the Sixers, the prize attached to securing the No. 1 seed is twofold.

    For starters, they've been a far better team at home (21-5) than on the road (17-12), so home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs might mean more to them than others.

    In addition, getting the No. 1 seed means getting on the opposite side of the bracket than the others. It's a lot easier to plot Philly's path out of the East if this team only has to face one of Brooklyn or Milwaukee instead of potentially playing both in consecutive rounds.

Thursday, May 13: At Miami Heat

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Since the Sixers are done with the Nets, and we've already accounted for both bouts with the Bucks, there isn't an obvious choice for game No. 3.

    Philadelphia has tricky matchups with the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns, but both are at home and neither is preceded by a game the night before. And outside of that extended stay in Milwaukee, there aren't many daunting road games, as Philly will face the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets away from home.

    That gives us some flexibility, so why not circle Philly's final road contest of the season against the always plucky Miami Heat? It's another Jimmy Butler revenge game, and Embiid won't draw many centers better than Bam Adebayo.

    This season's first Sixers-Heat collision went to overtime and featured 271 combined points, including 45 from Embiid, 34 from Tyler Herro and zero from Butler and Adebayo, since both missed the contest. Philly handled Miami by 17 points two nights later in another game both Butler and Adebayo missed.

    With the Sixers set to close with two straight against the rebuilding Orlando Magic, this could be the last time Philadelphia seriously sweats before the postseason.