The Eastern Conference playoff field has been decided. But there does remain a bit of intrigue in the 76ers’ remaining four games.
A No. 3 seed remains up for grabs. That’s why Friday night’s contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers is the Sixers’ biggest game in five seasons.
The third-place Cavaliers improved to 49-30 after Thursday night’s 119-115 victory over the Washington Wizards at Quicken Loans Arena. The Sixers are a half-game back at 48-30.
Cleveland, which boarded a flight to Philadelphia after Thursday’s game, would be a 1½ games ahead of the Sixers with a victory. That would enable them to control their own destiny.
Their remaining two games are both against the New York Knicks — on Monday in Cleveland and Wednesday in New York. The Cavs should win both games against the woeful Knicks (27-51).
If the Sixers win Friday, things will get interesting.
The team would be a half-game ahead of the Cavs with three games left. They would finished 52-30 by winning out. Meanwhile, Cleveland would finish 51-31 by losing to the Sixers and sweeping the final two games with the Knicks.
So it’s not unthinkable for the Sixers to clinch the No. 3.
After the Cavs leave town on Friday, the Sixers take on two of the worst teams in the league — the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday in South Philly and the Hawks in Atlanta on Tuesday — and end the regular season with a home game against playoff-bound Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Cleveland would get the third seed if both teams finish with same record.
That’s why Friday’s game is the hot ticket.
“This is fantastic for the fans,” Brett Brown said. “We are in a tremendous spot. I think for our guys to feel the city of Philadelphia, to have the city see our team play in … what will be a playoff atmosphere, it’s just a tremendous learning opportunity.”
The undermanned Sixers are hopeful that Dario Saric will return after missing the past three games with a bacterial infection in his right elbow. Joel Embiid will miss his fifth straight game after fracturing the orbital bone near his left eye. He is expected to be sidelined two to four weeks.
But the Sixers remained the league’s hottest teams despite the duo being sidelined.
Wednesday’s 115-108 victory over the Pistons in Detroit marked their 12th straight win, the longest active winning streak in the NBA. The Sixers are 15-3 since March 1, the day the Sixers defeated the short-handed Cavs, 108-97, at Quicken Loans Arena to snap an 11-game series losing streak to Cleveland.
LeBron James had a game-high 30 points to go with nine rebounds and eight assists in the loss. The four-time league MVP has scored exactly 30 points in all three of the teams’ previous meetings, while averaging 12 rebounds and nine assists.
In order to win, the Sixers will need to continue to play stellar defense and share the ball. They have posted at least 20 assists in each of their past 30 games.
“Obviously, LeBron’s presence and LeBron’s skill package bring a whole new set of challenges,” Brown said. “The fact that we are pretty close to each other in the standings and everybody’s trying to move up, that’s another side story.
“But, in general, the real story is we …. have four games left.”
But Friday’s contest is one the Sixers and their fan base have been anticipating for days. The Sixers want to make a statement against the team that has won the last three conference titles.
“We have 20,000 fans, who are going to be rowdy fans for that game,” Sixers reserve center Amir Johnson said. “We definitely want to treat it as a playoff game. … So everybody needs to be locked in and on point.”
Said Brown: “It’s a game obviously we want to win. But I think the environment is the thing I’m most excited about. Philadelphia will turn out for this game. We’re excited.”
Could this be an environment that will lure James to Philadelphia next season? He could become a free agent on July 1. The Sixers, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets and Cavs are rumored to be the teams he’s considering.