76ers' Complete Guide to 2021 NBA Playoffs; Updated Bracket, Matchups to Watch

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 20, 2021

76ers' Complete Guide to 2021 NBA Playoffs; Updated Bracket, Matchups to Watch

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The blueprint for the Philadelphia 76ers' path to the 2021 NBA title is nearly complete.

    While the Sixers won't know their first-round opponent until Thursday's play-in bout between the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers is complete, they have the rest of their road map to a championship.

    There are potential pitfalls around every corner and some serious roadblocks standing in the way, but Philly just might have what it takes to pull this off. Between MVP candidate Joel Embiid, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ben Simmons and a solid (sometimes spectacular) collection of support players around them, the Sixers check every box to rank among basketball's top contenders.

    But with perhaps four rounds of playoff basketball awaiting Philadelphia, let's break down everything that lies ahead.

Updated Eastern Conference Playoff Bracket

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    1. Philadelphia 76ers vs. 8. Washington Wizards/9. Indiana Pacers winner

    4. New York Knicks vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks

    3. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 6. Miami Heat

    2. Brooklyn Nets vs. 7. Boston Celtics

Matchups to Watch

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    A first-round bout with the Pacers-Wizards winner won't worry the Sixers much. They went 5-1 against those teams in the regular season, and their only stumble—a 103-94 loss to Indiana on May 11—happened without Embiid.

    In other words, Philly might roll to an early enough lead to start scoreboard watching. There won't be too much information to glean, but it could be telling to see how much the Heat can make the Bucks sweat. Miami was a brutal matchup for Milwaukee last season (taking the season series 2-1, then winning the conference semis by a 4-1 count) and swiped one win this year without Jimmy Butler.

    While the Nets will likely handle the Celtics, the series could still teach a few lessons. First, what kind of chemistry do James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving show after spending just eight games together? Second, how does first-year coach Steve Nash handle adjustments—assuming he's forced to make them? Both data points could help highlight how big of a challenge Brooklyn presents.

    The Sixers, of course, will also track the Knicks-Hawks series, since they'll draw the winner. Hair-splitting is a must to find a preferable matchup, since Atlanta and New York (who both went 41-31) seem so evenly matched. While the Hawks can score in bunches, the Knicks might be trickier for matching strength with strength, since, like the Sixers, they have an elite defense and non-elite offense.

    But the biggest tests will almost certainly be the Brooklyn-Milwaukee winner, and, should Philly survive that series, whoever comes out of the West. If the Sixers handle the teams they should, they could be the best-rested club among the four conference finalists.

The Sixers Win the Title If...

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Embiid stays upright, Simmons cements his case as the NBA's premier stopper, Tobias Harris sustains his quantity-plus-quality scoring, Philly's shooters hit their mark and Doc Rivers holds a coaching clinic.

    Whew. That's a lot.

    But that's the reason league championships are held in such high regard. They're brutally difficult to capture, and just about everything must break in a team's favor to pull it off.

    It could happen for Philly.

    Embiid may not win MVP, but he has been as dominant on both ends as anyone. Simmons is a defensive savant, and when he ramps up his offensive aggressiveness, his production can explode. Tobias Harris came dangerously close to joining the famed 50/40/90 shooting club while pumping in nearly 20 points per night. The offseason investment in shooting has given the offense more breathing room. Dwight Howard has given Philly a pulse during the non-Embiid minutes.

    Credit president of basketball operations Daryl Morey for making sense of this roster around the Embiid-Simmons-Harris trio. Credit Rivers for deftly assembling the puzzle pieces.

    The Sixers have hinted at having championship talent for years. This could be when it all comes together.