Philadelphia 76ers: Give me Washington or give me Charlotte in Round 1

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers‘ path to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals is all but set.

With the Brooklyn Nets locked into the two seed, and the Milwaukee Bucks at three, the Sixers have a path to the finals that won’t face any of those teams plus the Miami Heat in either of the first two rounds, unless, of course, Adam Silver finally decides to reseed in the second round to stick it to Philly one final time – which all but certainly won’t happen, but you never know.

What we don’t know, however, is who the Sixers play in the first round next weekend, as the NBA’s newfangled play-in tournament won’t decide the eighth seed until later this week.

I know, crazy, right? While potential second-round opponents like the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks can start to strategize for their initial opponent in a four-five series, the Sixers have four potential opponents of varying degrees of toughness who they could potentially see on Saturday, albeit after playing two must-win games over the previous four days.

Ideal? Hardly, but hey, heavy is the head to wears the crown. As long as the Philadelphia 76ers can avoid Boston and Indiana in the first round, we’re as good as gravy.

The Philadelphia 76ers will be watching the NBA’s play-in game very closely.

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The Philadelphia 76ers have made it to the playoffs in every season since 2017-18.

They’ve lost in the second round to the Boston Celtics, the first round to the Boston Celtics, and came a quadruple doink away from making it to the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors, though not in that order.

While the 2020-21 Boston Celtics aren’t the team that ended two of Brett Brown’s final three trips to the postseason- and to be fair, neither are the Sixers – it’s sort of bad basketball juju to explicitly want to face off against your most hated rival in the first round, even if they are without Jaylen Brown, (maybe) Kemba Walker or any center of note.

Could Doc Rivers still thwart his former club? Most definitely. Even if Jayson Tatum is the best 19-year-old to ever pick up a basketball, the dynamic duo of Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle should be able to keep him contained enough for Joel Embiid to outscore him with ease.

If Embiid can outscore Tatum in a series, the Sixers should advance their roster with ease considering their auxiliary firepower.

Embiid’s individual scoring becomes a whole lot less game changer-y in a series against the Indiana Pacers, as Nate Bjorkgren‘s squad has been a thorn in Rivers’ squad all season long.

Steering a team that has nearly reached mutiny status on multiple occasions, landing a punch-out eight seed over one seed series win over a team like the Sixers just might be enough to keep Bjorkgren’s job and win him back support in the front office.

If the Sixers draw a series against the Pacers, expect a ton of different zone looks, T.J. McConnell picking up full-court, and a really tricky route to the second round.

That just leaves the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets, a pair of teams built on strong guard play with no real answer for the Sixers’ interior scoring options.

Give me Washington or give me Charlotte; honestly, I’m cool either way.

While the Wizards, on paper, have the best dynamic duo of any of the Eastern Conference’s play-in representatives, they’ve been a mere speed bump on the Sixers’ path this season, and really, for quite a while now.

With only Alex Len and a 33-year-old Robin Lopez to even slow down Embiid and Ben Simmons in the paint, the Sixers expect a series of high-scoring games that would be exciting to watch and quite possibly set an NBA record for most free throws in a first-round series, especially if Scott Brooks decides to revert to his old hack-a-Ben ways.

Even if Bradley Beal averages 50 points over an entire series, which he can very much do, he’s still headlining a team averaging the most points allowed in the NBA and has a losing record against teams with a plus-.500 record.

Considering the Sixers have a win percentage of .681 – their best mark since the 2000-01 season – that bodes well for a Series 1 win.

And so for the Hornets? Well, they’re basically the Wizards with Russell Westbrook subbed out for our old pal Gordon Hayward.

Even if LaMelo Ball is happy, healthy, and ready to go for 36-plus minutes a night, the Hornets rank 20th in pace while simultaneously scoring 1.9 fewer points than they allow in any given game.

Even if the Hornets could one day become a thorn in the Eastern Conference’s side, they’re still one of the youngest teams in the playoffs without a whole lot of postseason experience. If anything, dropping a series to the Sixers – especially if they can’t steal a game – could be a nice learning experience for James Borrego’s squad, which is all you can really ask for, considering their postseason prospects weren’t particularly promising when Ball went down with a midseason injury that cost him 21 games.

So the Hornets were without their best player for much of the season, have no playoff experience in the post-Kemba Walker-era, and are too young to even know better? Yeah, give me that matchup any day.

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So, in summation, the Philadelphia 76ers should be pretty much good regardless of who they face off against in the first round. While some matchups may be a tad harder than others, either due to an extensive string of playoff experience or a potential lame-duck head coach who could leave it all on the line to secure one more season as an NBA head coach, this team is built to win in a variety of different ways and has enough firepower to muscle their way past even the best of eight seeds regardless of how many play-in games they had to win to earn their spot.