NBA Playoff Picture 2021: Joel Embiid, 76ers Continue Push for Top Seed in East

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMay 6, 2021

NBA Playoff Picture 2021: Joel Embiid, 76ers Continue Push for Top Seed in East

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia 76ers are in control in the battle for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. And if they keep playing the way they have of late, they should have no trouble securing that spot down the final stretch of the regular season.

    On Wednesday, Philadelphia won its sixth consecutive game, notching a 135-115 road victory over the Houston Rockets. The 76ers have six games remaining in the regular season, and four are against teams not in playoff positions. That includes two against the Orlando Magic and one against the Detroit Pistons, both of whom have been eliminated from postseason contention.

    Embiid powered the 76ers to victory over the Rockets with 34 points and 12 rebounds. He ranks third in the NBA in points per game (29.1) and 10th in rebounds per game (10.8).

    While Philadelphia has already clinched a playoff berth (marking the fourth straight year it will be going to the postseason), it's looking to secure the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time since 2001. That was also the last time the 76ers made it past the second round of the playoffs; they reached the NBA Finals that season.

    Here's a look at the NBA playoff picture, followed by more on the battles for the No. 1 seeds in both the East and West.

Latest Playoff Bracket

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Eastern Conference

    1. x-Philadelphia 76ers vs. play-in tournament runner-up

    2. x-Brooklyn Nets vs. play-in tournament winner

    3. y-Milwaukee Bucks vs. 6. Boston Celtics

    4. New York Knicks vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks

    Play-in tournament field: 7. Miami Heat, 8. Charlotte Hornets, 9. Indiana Pacers, 10. Washington Wizards


    Western Conference

    1. x-Utah Jazz vs. play-in tournament runner-up

    2 x-Phoenix Suns vs. play-in tournament winner

    3. x-Denver Nuggets vs. 6. Los Angeles Lakers

    4. x-Los Angeles Clippers vs. 5. Dallas Mavericks

    Play-in tournament field: 7. Portland Trail Blazers, 8. Memphis Grizzlies, 9. Golden State Warriors, 10. San Antonio Spurs

    *x: clinched playoff berth; y: clinched division

Will Nets or Bucks Catch 76ers for Top Seed?

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Although the 76ers have been on a roll of late, the Nets and Bucks remain in the battle for the No. 1 seed. Brooklyn is two games back, while Milwaukee is three games behind, so either could still get hot and push its way up the standings over the next week-and-a-half.

    The Nets have a ton of talent on their roster, but they've lost three games in a row, the last two coming on the road against the Bucks. That's allowed Milwaukee, which has won four straight and seven of its past nine, to maintain pace with Philadelphia and make up ground on Brooklyn.

    Even if the Nets can't catch the 76ers, they're set up to potentially have their best showing in the playoffs in quite some time. Especially if they can stay healthy, as Kevin Durant (thigh), James Harden (hamstring) and Kyrie Irving (groin) have all been dealing with recent injuries.

    Brooklyn is heading to the playoffs for the third year in a row, but it hasn't won a postseason series since 2014. And even if it doesn't end up as the No. 1 seed, it will at least be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed.

    Milwaukee could earn the No. 1 seed for the third year in a row. However, in its previous two playoff appearances, it couldn't make it past the Eastern Conference Finals.

    If either of those teams is going to end up with the No. 1 seed, it will need Philadelphia to cool off. And right now, it's not looking like that will happen, especially with how well it's been playing away from home.

    "That's one of the things we talked about, we have to win on the road, and we're doing it," 76ers coach Doc Rivers said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "And we have to keep doing it."

    If they do, the 76ers may not only secure the No. 1 seed, they may be poised for a deep playoff run.

Jazz, Suns Continue Tight Battle for Top Spot in West

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Can the Jazz stave off the Suns to secure the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference? The two teams have been neck and neck of late, and both are playing well. So it should be an exciting battle to watch over the final week-plus of the regular season.

    Utah has a one-game advantage for the top spot after winning its past three games. It lost 121-100 at Phoenix last Friday, but it hasn't lost since. And the Jazz have played consistently well all season, so it seems unlikely they're going to slow down now, especially with a light upcoming schedule (only one game against a top-six team from either conference).

    Not only is Utah continuing to play well, it's doing so without guards Donovan Mitchell (ankle) and Mike Conley (hamstring). In the meantime, other Jazz players are stepping up.

    "Finding our rhythm, it's great. Right now we are trying figure out how to play without Donovan and Mike we are trying to run more … so it's good for me to get my confidence back and be ready for the playoffs," forward Bojan Bogdanovic said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN).

    The Suns' five-game winning streak was snapped with a 135-103 loss to the Hawks on Wednesday. But they've already clinched their first playoff berth since 2010, and even if they don't catch the Jazz for the top seed, they've had a successful season and have the potential to impress in the postseason.

    While Phoenix went more than a decade between playoff appearances, Utah is going to be in the postseason for the fifth year in a row. However, the Jazz haven't made it past the second round during that stretch, and they've been eliminated in the first round each of the past two seasons.

    No matter which of these two teams earns the top seed, the other is likely to be the No. 2 seed. And for a pair of franchises hungry for playoff success, it could help to have home-court advantage early in the postseason.