Joel Embiid’s 76ers and Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets could both face unprecedentedly difficult paths to the NBA Finals

With less than a month left in the NBA regular season, it’s time to take a serious look at the playoff picture — not just in terms of who’s in and who’s out, but also in terms of the matchups. It’s not uncommon for teams in the final days of the regular season to vie for the seeding they want, even if it’s a lower seeding to get the first-round opponent they think they have the best chance of beating to beat.

It’s still a bit early to say which teams could do some shenanigans and seed their best players on the final day of the season, but there are two teams likely hoping the table won’t end in any particular configuration.

The No. 1 Western Conference Denver Nuggets and the No. 3 Eastern Conference Philadelphia 76ers could both have unprecedented paths to a potential championship ahead of them. According to a study by CBS Sports, no NBA team has beaten the previous three conference champions before the NBA Finals. Led by top MVP contenders Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, both the Nuggets and 76ers may need to make history to reach the Finals this postseason.

Let’s explain.

Denver nuggets

The Nuggets’ win in the West is far from a foregone conclusion as they led the second-ranked Sacramento Kings and third-ranked Memphis Grizzlies by six games Friday night. That means, barring a catastrophe, a date with the number 8 in the first round of the playoffs, who would be the runner-up in the play-in tournament. Since the Los Angeles Lakers are currently ranked 9th, if they won both play-in tournament games they would become 8th and face Denver in the first round. The Lakers, of course, were the Western Conference champions in 2020 and won the title.

If the Nuggets win that series, they could face Kevin Durant and the new-look Phoenix Suns in the second round, as Phoenix seems to be quite firmly attached to the No. 4. The Suns, the 2021 Western Conference champions, would need to win their first-round matchup against the No. 5, but that seems pretty realistic if Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul are healthy. That’s a second Western Conference champion foe for the Nuggets.

If Denver finally gets past the Suns, there’s a chance they’ll face the defending champions Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State is currently at No. 7, with the same record as the No. 6 Dallas Mavericks. If the Warriors finish seventh by winning their first play-in game, they would potentially face upstart Sacramento in the first round Meet Kings, who is currently ranked 2nd.

As great as the Kings have been this season, most NBA fans are aware of the lack of playoff experience on their roster as it would be the franchise’s first postseason berth in 17 years. If healthy, the Warriors could very well be favorites to win the series, and a win would mean a potential matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, currently No. 3, or whichever team ends up getting the No. 6 seed. The Warriors would likely be favored again this series, regardless of opponent, and could make it to the Conference Finals for the second straight year.

That way, the Nuggets, who finish with the best record in the West — and possibly the best record in the NBA — could end up facing a gauntlet run by the last three Western Conference champions.

(1) Denver Nuggets vs.

(8) Los Angeles Lakers

(4) Phoenix Suns

(7) Warriors of the Golden State

Even if there are some slight variances in the rankings — say the Lakers go into the playoffs 6th and the Warriors finish 8th, or the Suns finish 5th — the difficult path might still end up being the same for Denver.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers face a similarly difficult path, but theirs is a little more set in stone. Barring an upset, if they stay in 3rd place, the 76ers will need to get through the two previous Eastern Conference champions — the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks — in a specific order to reach the NBA Finals.

That leaves only Philadelphia’s first-round opponent who could potentially be the 2020 Eastern Conference champions Miami Heat (who was also one of Jimmy Butler’s, who was 3-point miss from the East’s winning again last postseason) . Currently No. 7, Miami trails the No. 6 Brooklyn Nets in the three-game loss column.

That’s a lot of ground to gain with so few games left, but remember the Nets completely overhauled their roster with the mid-season moves of Durant and Kyrie Irving. They’ve been hot lately, but it’s not crazy to think they could rack up a few losses and fall behind in the standings. If that’s the case, the Heat will do everything in their power to get out of the play-in, which could see them seize the No. 6 seed and a first-round matchup with the Sixers.

(3)Philadelphia 76ers vs.

(6) Miami Heat

(2) Boston Celtics

(1) Milwaukee Bucks

As jumbled as the table is, it’s entirely possible that the brackets don’t shake out anything of the sort. But since it’s never happened before in NBA history, it’s pretty crazy to think that two teams — the Nuggets and the 76ers — have to beat the previous three conference champions back-to-back to reach the NBA Finals.

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