Joel Embiid’s 76ers, Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets Could Both Face Unprecedented Roads To The NBA Finals

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

It’s still too early to tell which teams might make a splash and sit their best players on the final day of the season, but there are two teams who are likely hoping the standings don’t settle into a certain configuration.

The Western Conference’s No. 1 Denver Nuggets and the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers could both face unprecedented paths to a potential championship. No NBA team has ever won the previous three conference championships 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 need to make history to reach the Finals this postseason.

Let us explain.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets winning the West is anything 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 second of the play-in tournament. Since the Los Angeles Lakers are currently the No. 9 seed, if they were to win both of their tournament play-in games, they would become the No. 8 seed and face Denver in the first round. The Lakers, of course, were the 2020 Western Conference champions and went on to win the title.

If the Nuggets win this series, they could then face Kevin Durant and the new Phoenix Suns in the second round, as Phoenix seems pretty locked into the No. 4 seed. The Suns, the 2021 Western Conference champions, should 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 a second straight Western Conference champion for the Nuggets.

Finally, if Denver gets past the Suns, there’s a chance they’ll face the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Golden State is currently ranked No. 7, tied with the No. 6 Dallas Mavericks. If the Warriors finish seventh by winning their first play-in game, they will likely face the upstart Sacramento Kings, currently ranked No. 2, 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 may well be the favorite to win the series, and a win would set up a possible matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, currently No. 3, or whichever team ends up earning the No. 6 seed. The Warriors will likely be favored once again in this series, regardless of the opponent, and could reach the conference finals for the second year in a row.

So the Nuggets, by virtue of finishing with the best record in the West — and possibly the best record in the NBA — could end up facing a gauntlet of the three previous Western Conference champions.

(1) Denver Nuggets vs.

(8) Los Angeles Lakers

(4) Phoenix Suns

(7) Golden State Warriors

Even if there’s some slight variation in the rankings — say, the Lakers enter the playoffs at No. 6 and the Warriors finish at No. 8 or the Suns finish fifth — the rough road could end up being the same for Denver.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers face a similarly difficult road, but theirs is a bit rockier. If they stay at No. 3, barring an upset, the 76ers will have to get past the two previous Eastern Conference champions — the Boston Celtics and the 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 a Jimmy Butler three-pointer away from winning the East again last season ). Currently No. 7, Miami trails the No. 6 Brooklyn Nets by three games in the losing streak.

That’s a lot of ground to gain with so few games left, but remember that the Nets completely overhauled their roster with the midseason trades of Durant and Kyrie Irving. They’ve been hot lately, but it’s not crazy to think they might pile up a few losses and fall in the standings. If that’s the case, the Heat will do everything in their power to get out of the play-ins, which could result in 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 confusing the rankings are, it’s certainly possible that the brackets don’t stir something like this. But, as it’s never been done before in NBA history, it’s pretty crazy to think that two teams — the Nuggets and the 76ers — might have to beat the previous three conference champions in a row to reach the NBA Finals.

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