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

With less than a month remaining in the NBA regular season, it’s time to start taking a serious look at the playoff picture — not only in terms of who’s in and who’s out but also in terms of matchups. It’s not uncommon to see teams jockeying for the seed that they want in the final days of the regular season, even if it’s a lower seed, in order to get the first-round opponent they feel they have the best chance to beat.

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

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

Let’s explain.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets winning the West is all but a foregone conclusion, as they led the second-place Sacramento Kings and third-place Memphis Grizzlies by six games as of Friday night. That means, barring disaster, a date with the No. 8 seed in the first round of the playoffs, which would be the runner-up of the play-in tournament. Since the Los Angeles Lakers are currently in the No. 9 spot, if they won both of their play-in tournament games, they would become the No. 8 seed and face Denver in the first round. The Lakers, of course, were the Western Conference champions in 2020 and went on to win the title.

If the Nuggets win that series, they could then face Kevin Durant and the new-look Phoenix Suns in the second round, as Phoenix looks pretty locked into the No. 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. That’s a second Western Conference-champion foe for the Nuggets.

Finally, if Denver gets past the Suns, there’s a possibility they could face the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Golden State is currently in the No. 7 spot, with the same record as the No. 6 Dallas Mavericks. If the Warriors end up seventh by winning their first play-in game, they would potentially face the upstart Sacramento Kings, currently in the No. 2 spot, in the first round.

As great as the Kings have been this season, most NBA fans are well 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 might very well be the favorite to win the series, and a victory would mean a potential matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, currently No. 3, or whichever team ends up earning the No. 6 seed. The Warriors would likely once again be favored in that series, no matter the opponent, and could make it to the conference finals for a second-straight year.

So that’s how the Nuggets, by virtue of finishing with the best record in the West — and potentially the best record in the NBA — could end up facing a gauntlet of the past three Western Conference champions.

(1) Denver Nuggets vs.

(8) Los Angeles Lakers

(4) Phoenix Suns

(7) Golden State Warriors

Even if there is some slight variation in the standings — say, the Lakers enter the playoffs at No. 6 and the Warriors finish at No. 8, or the Suns end up fifth — the difficult path could still end up being the same for Denver.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers face a similarly difficult road, but theirs is a little more set in stone. If they remain in the No. 3 seed, barring an upset, the 76ers will have to get through the two previous Eastern Conference champions — the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks — in some order, to reach the NBA Finals.

That just leaves Philadelphia’s first-round opponent, which could potentially be the 2020 Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat (who were also one Jimmy Butler missed 3-pointer away from winning the East again last postseason). Currently No. 7, Miami trails the No. 6 Brooklyn Nets by three games in the loss column.

That’s a lot of ground to gain with so few games remaining, but remember that the Nets completely revamped their roster with the mid-season trades of Durant and Kyrie Irving. They’ve been hot lately, but it’s not crazy to think that they might pile up a few losses and drop in the standings. If that’s the case, the Heat will be doing everything in their power to get out of the play-in, which could result in their seizing of 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

With how jumbled the standings are, it’s certainly possible that the brackets shake out nothing like this. But, since it’s never happened before in NBA history, it’s pretty wild to think that two teams — the Nuggets and 76ers — might have to beat the three previous conference champions consecutively in order to reach the NBA Finals.

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