East Teams Ranked by How Little I Want Philly to Face Them in the Playoffs
Let the fear consume you.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
Andrew's writing is brought to you by Kinetic Skateboarding! Not only the Ricky's approved skate shop, but the best place to get Chucks, Vans, any apparel. Use code "DAVESILVER" for 9.1% off your order.
Following a confusing Bubble playoffs, a short summer off (which took place from October to December) and a first half of the season that saw most of the league either formally or informally forfeit games due to COVID regulations, we knew this was going to be a weird NBA stretch run. Still, we probably didn't quite know it was going to be "Hornets-Knicks might be a first-round matchup" weird, or "Raptors need to get hot to make the play-in game" weird -- or, perhaps especially, "Sixers are basically guaranteed a top-three seed and have a pretty good chance of being tops overall" weird.
Yes, the Sixers are indeed in the playoffs, and in rather comfortable, even enviable position, all things considered. However, the weirdness of this season also makes the accomplishment of their seeding a little bit muddled: Playing either Charlotte or New York in the second round this season, as we'd currently be positioned to potentially do, certainly sounds great. But then you realize that to get there, we'd have to play Boston or Miami -- currently tied for the eighth seed -- in the first round, which sounds maybe less great. Or not! It's pretty hard to tell who's actually good this year, who's overachieving, who's saving it for the playoffs and who just needs time to round into form.
Still, with about 25 games to go in the season, it's time to start rooting for potential matchups -- who we want to play, who we want to dodge, who we want vengeance on and whose potentially poetic feel-good postseason run we want absolutely no part of. The Cavs, Magic and Pistons are probably out of the mix at this point even with the play-in game, but that still leaves 11 potential playoff matchups for the Sixers at some point this season. Here's who I'd like the Sixers to face, from most to least -- largely based on likely series success, but of course with plenty of pettier factors also mixed in.
11. Charlotte Hornets
You need a minimum of four syllables in "crazy" to emphasize just how fucking cuh-RAY-zuh-HEE it is that the Sixers not only have a chance of facing Charlotte in the playoffs, but that it could even happen after four other East teams have already lost a series. The Sixers are of course very used to playing four-to-seven games in a row against the Hornets -- they do so seemingly every year -- but usually it comes over a week and a half in December or January, ostensibly while the rest of the regular season is still going on around them. And since the end of 2016, every one of them has ended with a Sixers win. If this team is any different this season with Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball (who's hurt now anyway), they haven't showed it in their two matchups with Philly. If Terry Rozier still had Ghost Celtics mojo in Charlotte he would've demonstrated it by now. This team has no buzz against Philly. I'd be more scared of facing Cleveland, honestly.
10. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls at least could be scarier with pre-Process great Nikola Vucevic giving new dimension to their offense, and if their shooters catch fire they could be good for a frightful game or two against us. But... eh. Still the Bulls, and they haven't really given us trouble since Jimmy Butler was there three teams ago. Zach LaVine is petrifying but we have two of maybe the six guys on the league best designed to slow him down, most of their players have never sniffed a .500 season let alone playoff success, and for whatever fond memories we may have of Thad he's not exactly renowned for overachieving in the postseason. The only thing that separates them from Charlotte here is the not-disregardable possibility that there'll be some 1/8 karma from the 2012 matchup when everyone good on Chicago got hurt and Philly squeaked out a still-not-that-easy upset over them. We do kinda need Jo hex-free this sping.
9. Washington Wizards
The curse has lifted -- probably. The Sixers may never be particularly excellent at containing Bradley Beal, but that dude's gas meter is running so low his dad is tut-tutting him from the backseat about having not stopped at the BP when he had the chance. Russell Westbrook is playing better these days, but that dude is scary right up until the point he takes his first ill-advised pull-up three and then never again thereafter. And who even is the third scariest player on that team right now? Rui Hachimura? Garrison Matthews? Are Ish Smith and/or Tim Frazier still on the bench there somewhere? In games 3 and 4 we'll still get the instinctive shiver that still invariably comes with heading to Washington, but would be tough to imagine this Sixers team losing multiple games to this Wizards team even playing in Cowboys Stadium with the 2019 Raptors' rims right now.
8. New York Knicks
We'd win, for sure -- but man, would it be taxing. Even the game we beat them by 20 with Joel earlier this year felt like it knocked the wind out of us for a game or two after. They defend, they pound the ball, and they act like they don't even know how to pronounce "garbage time." They're not good enough to beat the Sixers, but they're annoying enough to make us wish we were playing a team with a better chance of actually winning instead. Which is ultimately fine, but all things being equal, I'd rather play a team where we could sweep them and not go "thank GOD we can return to watching the Phillies going for .500 now" immediately after.
7. Indiana Pacers
Probably the hardest team on the list to judge. For various reasons logical and illogical, there are plenty of guys I'd rather not the Sixers face in a playoff series anytime soon -- Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Timothy John McConnell -- but the team has straight-up stunk for about two months now, and it's hard to really pay proper respect to a team you came back from 20 down to beat on the road in the fourth quarter without your best player. A couple quarters of Joel respectfully dominating Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis and you have to figure the Pacers will fold pretty quickly from there. Still, between Brogdon, LeVert, maybe Aaron Holiday, they have enough How Are They Hitting Every Fucking Shot guys that I could see them winning a game early in the series and briefly appearing a lot scarier than they likely are -- and having to root that much against TJ and JaKarr isn't something any of us would much cherish.
6. Toronto Raptors
The highest-ranked of the teams who I think have basically zero percent chance of beating us without major injury help. The Raptors have slid so far this season that they've passed "Can they turn it on in the playoffs?" and even "Fine but don't bet against them in the play-in games," all the way to "Are they definitely better than the Wizards?" The team has given nearly every indication that they're ready to pack it in this season -- and probably wouldn't beat the Sixers even in a best-case 2021 for them -- and yet, get them in the playoffs and matched up with us, and I'm sure it'd look like Sixers-Raptors: Embiid flummoxed, Simmons erratic, 16-0 swings and shotclock-beating prayers galore. (Not to mention the Imagine Not Wanting to Trade For Kyle Lowry factor.) To quote FOTB Jason Lipshutz, we'd beat them in six games, and every one of the games would suck. Better than a real chance of losing, but as with the Knicks, you have to wonder if there could be a long-enough recovery period for you to get back to wanting to watch basketball again by the time of the next round.
5. Atlanta Hawks
Actually scary or fake scary? I don't know, but can't say I'm super-excited at the prospect of finding out. The Hawks have long been trouble for the Sixers even when they've been bad, and while they've cooled off considerably since winning eight in a row under Nate McMillan, the version of the team that hits their stride at the right time and hits 18 threes a game for an entire playoff round is definitely still there somewhere. Possible Philly handles them easily in their two regular-season matchups to come and I slide them a spot or two lower here before the playoffs -- we haven't even played them since we were still down multiple starters to COVID protocols -- but right now, they're not a potential matchup I'd be doing a ton of pre-series crowing about.
4. Boston Celtics
Actually bad or just long regular season bad? Can't say I know that one either. Would certainly love to return the favor to Boston for their first-round treatment of us last year, and exorcise a whole lot of longstanding playoff demons in the process, but man -- no matter what their record is, I still look at this team and see a lot of the guys who made us Frustrated Incorporated not all that long ago. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart -- even if you don't believe in Evan Fournier being a difference-maker for them (and I don't think I do), the idea of having to beat those four guys four times stays imposing. Revenge would be sweet, but any one Cus Crise win and I wouldn't sleep again for the rest of the series -- because losing to them for the third time in four years, this time as the heavy favorite, would be cause for ejecting the cartridge, throwing it across the room and moving on to a different game altogether. Personally I'd rather not risk it.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
All season long, Milwaukee has basically done as you'd expect a dominant regular season team coming off two playoff flameouts (and an offseason of significant but not game-changing upgrades) would -- well, but not well enough when it really counts to much change anyone's opinion about them. The Sixers have only played them the once and lost, but you still came away from that game Fearing the Deer even less than before: They caught us at the end of a back-to-back, a fifth game in seven nights, and even without Joel we still suffocated them on defense and took them to OT. Last night, they fared even worse against the Clippers in L.A. with their full starting five than we did without Jo on Saturday. It's a good team, and it's not like there's no world where they beat the Sixers -- some would even argue that they're the better team on the whole, though the evidence for that is not as persuasive as you might've expected preseason -- but as much as we all still love and fear Jrue Holiday, there's not much the rest of the team (including their 2x reigning MVP) has done to show they're different at the core than the team that's underwhelmed dramatically the past two postseasons. You could talk me into ranking them below the Celtics; that'd be showing Boston more respect than I'm comfortable with right now, but by season's end I very well might.
2. Brooklyn Nets
I am legitimately fearful of Brooklyn, as all fans of NBA teams not currently employing three of the greatest offensive players of the 21st century generally should be. I think the Sixers can beat them, but I don't know if they will, and it seems very unlikely they'll meet with both teams at full strength before then to give us any kind of preview. A matchup between the two might very well come down to who's healthier, and you never like having to bet on the Sixers in that respect. That said, if the two teams do meet, it won't be until the conference finals, at which point we'll have already made it to the conference finals, and that's already further than I ever would've expected for the Sixers coming into this season. Losing to a max-power Nets team in the ECFs would be disappointing but not dispiriting -- in all likelihood the only team on this list we could say that about -- and that's enough to keep them out of the No. 1 spot here.
1. Miami Heat
I know they're 23-24. I know that Victor Oladipo is just as likely to disrupt their current roster as to significantly upgrade it. I know the Sixers are (very technically) 2-0 against them so far this season. I know the Bubble playoffs was in many ways an ideal scenario for Miami that can never be repeated. I know that only the Raptors are saving them from being the Fuck Happened? team of the entire NBA right now. But I don't really care about any of it. I remain entirely terrified of this Miami team and its many component parts, and until they have been officially incinerated on a pyre of Vice Nights jerseys I do not want to play them under any circumstances.
Part of it's because I think there's still a really good team in there -- one in which Tyler Herro goes full Machine Gun Kelly sneer, Goran Dragic picks up where he left off before last year's Finals, Trevor Ariza randomly starts hitting 55% of his threes and Andre Iguodala does his Daylight Savings thing on Father Time once more. But I'll admit even the best-case Heat are still clearly less fearsome than the Nets. No, Miami's mostly on here because we've somehow gone the better part of half a year now without needing to relitigate the Jimmy Butler trade for the 18,000th time -- a move that was clearly an abject failure for the Sixers, but which one short regime change later, we seem to have mostly, improbably recovered from.
Losing to Jimmy not only means that we lose to Jimmy, but it reopens the files on all that in a way I simply can't abide. It's been too nice living here in this magical world in which last postseason feels like a bad dream after eating too much Thai food, and our current starting five is performing so magnificently when healthy that we need not want for Jimothy. I don't know what the chances are of the Heat being able to take us out four games out of seven, but even a 15% chance is higher than I can stomach. Lest we forget, it wasn't that long ago that Joel Embiid wearing a Heat jersey was a not-totally-implausible outcome from all of this. I'd rather get swept by the LaMelo-less Hornets than have to seriously contemplate that possibility again.