Joel Embiid’s 76ers, Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets could both face unprecedentedly difficult roads to NBA Finals

Less than a month away from the end of the NBA regular season, it’s time to take a serious look at the playoff picture – not just in terms of who made it and who didn’t, but also in terms of matchups. It’s not uncommon in the final days of the regular season for teams to fight for the seed they need, even if it’s a lower seed, to get the first-round opponent they think they have the best chance of beating.

It’s still too early to tell which teams might pull some shenanigans and seat their best players on the final day of the season, but there are two teams that are likely hoping the standings won’t end up in a certain configuration.

The #1 seed in the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets, and the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers, could face unprecedented roads to a potential championship. According to research by CBS Sports, no NBA team has ever defeated the previous three conference champions prior to the NBA Finals. Led by top MVP contenders Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, both the Nuggets and 76ers may have to make history to reach the Finals this postseason.

Let’s explain.

Denver Nuggets

A victory for the Nuggets in the West is almost a foregone conclusion as, as of Friday night, they edged out the second-place Sacramento Kings and the third-place Memphis Grizzlies by six games. That means, barring disaster, a date with the No. 8 seed in the first round of the playoffs, who will be the second play-in player in the tournament. With the Los Angeles Lakers currently in 9th seed, if they win both of their tournament games, they will become the 8th seed and face Denver in the first round. The Lakers, of course, were Western Conference champions in 2020 and won the title.

If the Nuggets win this series, they could face Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns in the second round in a new look, as the Phoenix looks pretty tied to the #4 seed. The Suns, the 2021 Western Conference champions, would have to win their first-round matchup against the No. 5 seed, but that seems pretty realistic if Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul are healthy. This is the second Western Conference champion for the Nuggets.

Finally, if Denver beats the Suns, there’s a chance they could face the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Golden State are currently in seventh place with the same record as the No. 6 Dallas Mavericks. If the Warriors find themselves seventh by winning their first game, they will potentially face the upstart Sacramento Kings, who are currently time ranks second in the first round.

As great as the Kings have been this season, most NBA fans are well aware of their roster’s lack of playoff experience, as it will be the franchise’s first postseason spot in 17 years. If they are healthy, the Warriors could very well be the favorite to win the series, and a win would mean a potential matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, currently No. 3, or any other team that ends up with the No. 6 seed.” The Warriors are likely to get the upper hand again in this series, regardless of the opponent, and will be able to reach the conference finals for the second year in a row.

So the Nuggets, having finished with the best record in the West — and possibly the best record in the NBA — could end up facing a challenge from the last three Western Conference champions.

Potential West playoff First round conf. Semi-finished products conf. The final

(1) Denver Nuggets vs.

(8) Los Angeles Lakers

(4) Phoenix Suns

(7) Golden State Warriors

Even if there are slight differences in the standings—say, the Lakers enter the playoffs at No. 6 and the Warriors finish at No. 8, or the Suns finish in fifth—the hard road can still end up the same. for Denver.

Philadelphia 76ers

The 66ers have a similarly tough road ahead, but theirs is a bit more difficult. If they remain seeded at No. 3, barring an upset, the 76ers will have to beat the previous two Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, in some order to reach the NBA Finals.

All that remains is Philadelphia’s first-round challenger, which could potentially be the 2020 Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat (who was also one of those Jimmy Butler missed with a 3-pointer from winning the East last postseason). Currently ranked seventh, Miami is three games behind the sixth-place Brooklyn Nets in a losing streak.

With so few games left, there’s a lot to be gained, but remember that the Nets completely revamped their roster after the Durant and Kyrie Irving trade midseason. They’ve been on top lately, but it’s not crazy to think they can pile up a few losses and drop down the standings. If so, the Heat will do everything in their power to get out of the play-in, which could lead to a 6th seed capture and a first-round matchup with the 6ers.

Potential East playoff First round conf. Semi-finished products conf. The final

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs.

(6) Miami Heat

(2) Boston Celtics

(1) Milwaukee Bucks

Considering how jumbled the league tables are, it’s entirely possible that brackets don’t shake anything of the sort. But since this has never happened in NBA history, it’s pretty wild to think that two teams – the Nuggets and the 76ers – might have to beat three previous conference champions in a row to reach the NBA Finals.


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