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Ah, for the misguided arrogance of last April. Fueled by an unexpected 16-game winning streak to end the season, the Sixers entered the playoffs last spring on top of the NBA world, and fearing no one in the Eastern Conference. The Lowry/DeRozan Raptors? LOL, not falling for that one again this postseason. The LeBron-led Cavs? Already beat them last week of the season, and without Joel Embiid. The Irving- and Hayward-less Celtics? Yeah right, like Terry Rozier, rookie Jayson Tatum and crusty-ass Al Horford were gonna beat us on their own. Bring ‘em on, we said. All of ‘em.
Turns out, the Sixers had a little trouble with that last one -- and given LeBron’s should’ve-been-predictable supernova-ing once shit got real, probably would’ve with his squad too. Perhaps it’s the enforced humility of that experience has us a little less gung ho about Philly’s chances against top-flight opponents this time around. More likely, tough, it’s the fact that the Sixers just haven’t looked very good against the East’s best this regular season -- resulting in us entering the final stretch of the schedule still trying to do some serious standings maneuvering to duck about half the conference in the first round.
We certainly don’t want to play Boston, whose 4-1 second-round victory over Philly from last May has carried into a 3-0 sweep thus far in the regular season -- even as the C’s appear to otherwise be in free-fall, I have to make the usually questionable decision of agreeing with Chris Broussard when he asserts that you’d have to be foolish not to pick them over us in a seven-game series. Toronto isn’t looking like a much better matchup, having decisively taken three of four from us this season -- with our lone victory coming with the team down three starters, and with them just having traded for a guy who gives Embiid fits. And fucking Brooklyn: After three brutal Hey Every Dude on the Nets Please Stop Making Every Single Shot Already games against them so far this season, if we never have to play them again, it’ll be too soon.
So, who, if anyone, do we actually want to play this postseason? I’m not sure there’s a ton of good answers to that -- it’s weird to feel this unconfident in a 39-22 team with four All-Star-caliber players in its starting lineup, but with just about every squad there are matchup issues, annoying regular-season memories, or former-player grudges that I’d love to avoid if possible. But first-round byes aren’t often a thing in the Association, so failing an NCAA-type scandal that forces a squad to preemptively forfeit their playoff wins, we’re gonna have to play someone this April. Here’s how I rank the six possibilities -- not counting Boston, Toronto or Brooklyn, who we would very obviously like to avoid if possible (though it almost certainly won’t be) -- from least to most practical.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
What would our chances be? Not hopeless, anyway. Likely because we’ve only played them once so far this season, and have yet to play them with Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris, the Bucks seem the least personally frightening of the conference’s elite competition, despite them being an East-best 47-14 and having yet to lose consecutive games all season. We’ll see if that confidence can subside through our two remaining games against them, but for now, we can talk ourselves into Mike’s idea of Embiid countering Giannis Antetokounmpo and the entire operation being gummed up from there, while our guys just out-star-power their supporting cast.
Most annoying thing about playing them? Undoubtedly the prospect of Brook Lopez hitting six standstill threes a night as the Sixers share successive rounds of Well I Thought That You Were pointing.
Could we actually end up facing them? Not in the first round, but if we actually manage to get through one of these other suckers, very likely in the second.
5. Orlando Magic
What would our chances be? Probably fairly good, but not as good as I’d like. The Magic have given us fits in our two showdowns so far this season, just barely letting us squeeze out a 116-115 W in the season’s opening week and then stealing the first game of the Jimmy Butler era from us about a month later. Terrence Ross is a classic Hits Every Shot Against Us guy, Nik Vucevic has tortured us ever since we had the temerity to trade him for Andrew Bynum, and anytime D.J. Augustin does a single positive thing against us it’s infuriating. The only positive about playing them was that we might get some fun revenge games out of former Magicians J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris -- and, uh, possibly Jonathon Simmons.
Most annoying thing about playing them? Aside from Vooch averaging 30-20 against us, let’s not forget that certain old friend of ours who’ll be getting shoulder rubs on the Magic sideline while Doris Burke recounts his tumultuous time in Philly and raves about how all he needs moving forward is a new team to believe in him.
Could we actually end up facing them? Unlikely we’ll either rise from the fourth to the second seed or that they’ll rise from the ninth to the sixth, so probably not.
4. Indiana Pacers
What would our chances be? Pretty solid. The Sixers have taken two of three from Indiana this year -- both Ws coming in Indiana, and one fairly decisively -- and those were before franchise player Victor Oladipo went down with his season-ending knee injury. The Pacers seem like they should have the kind of pesky guards and stretchy bigs that give Philly fits, but so far this season, our talent level seems a little too much for their scrappy group to contend with. Even though they’re still a strong regular-season team without Oladipo, it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t go into a playoff series against them feeling pretty puffy-chested.
Most annoying thing about playing them? Certainly former Process great Thaddeus Young going off for at least 25 a night, getting a million second-chance opportunities and even hitting a handful of outside jumpers just to piss us off.
Could we actually end up facing them? That’s probably the Sixers’ hope at the moment, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely as long as they keep winning and Boston keeps losing, seemingly locking Boston into the fifth seed. We’d need the two to swap momentums going into the final stretch -- not impossible, as the Pacers’ schedule gets real hard in its final weeks, but probably not something to bank on at this point.
3. Charlotte Hornets
What would our chances be? Depends on if you want to focus on our 3-0 record against them this season, or our +6 total point differential across those three games. Certainly we seem to have some sort of mental edge against the Hornets, while also being the much more talented team -- plus hopefully an angry Ben Simmons at Kemba Walker getting the All-Star sympathy start over him. But Charlotte really makes us earn it, and I doubt many of us are feeling as confident in the percentage play of a Jimmy Butler stepback jumper for the win these days as we were in November. We’ll still probably win in the end, but we might not enjoy it a ton.
Most annoying thing about playing them? Kemba scoring 10 points on 3-14 shooting in the first three quarters, and then still going for 25 in the final frame (and probably OT, why not).
Could we actually end up facing them? They’re still three games behind Brooklyn for sixth with a pretty tough end-of-season schedule, so probably not.
2. Detroit Pistons
What would our chances be? Quite good! As any Process historian will tell you, the Sixers found regular success against Detroit even during our leanest years, and even with Stan Van Gundy sadly since deposed, our winning ways against the Pistons have continued through 2018-’19. We went 3-1 against them this regular season, with the one loss being a one-point OT defeat at the hands of Blake Griffin’s 50-point explosion -- which wouldn’t even have been enough had he been accurately called for an offensive foul against Robert Covington on his final drive, instead of an and-one.
Blake’s still a tough matchup for Philly, but there’s just not a lot of other guys on this Detroit team that scare you -- and even with Andre Drummond currently on a hot streak, one look at Embiid and he should go back to chucking threes and air-balling putbacks and generally forgetting how to play basketball altogether.
Most annoying thing about playing them? Could see Luke Kennard enjoying the hottest shooting stretch of his career across five games against us, couldn’t you?
Could we actually end up facing them? They’re only a game and a half behind Brooklyn and have been playing much better ball as of late, so it’s possible they could get to six -- though their schedule gets pretty tough in the final weeks. The RTRS community should certainly be rooting for them against Brooklyn in their final matchup on March 11, at least.
1. Miami Heat
What would our chances be? I mean, as far as I’m concerned we’re never losing to the Heat again. We’re basically to them what the Celtics are to us -- bested ‘em 4-1 last playoffs, and have taken care of business against them this season, going 2-0 with one matchup still remaining. They make things tough, and they certainly make things irritating, but they just don’t really have the juice to hang with us at the end of the day -- and if playing JoJo makes Andre Drummond forget how to play basketball, playing JoJo makes Hassan Whiteside forget his own name. Please merciful Process Dark Lord Sam Hinkie, grant us a first-round matchup against the Miami Heat this and every postseason.
Most annoying think about playing them? Everything Dwyane Wade, and everything Kelly Olynyk. But especially everything Dwyane Wade.
Could we end up facing them? Sadly they’ve been a little too shit over the past few months and have dropped to a tie for ninth in the standings, three-and-a-half games out of six. But the post-LeBron Heat do love to go on random hot streaks that ultimately prove meaningless, and did just beat the Warriors, so can’t count out the possibility entirely.