Miami, Indiana, Philadelphia.
Entering the restart of the 2019-20 season at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, just two games separate the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers - three teams jockeying for the fourth, fifth and sixth seeds in the Eastern Conference - with each team having an outside shot at the No. 3 seed.
With eight seeding games on the schedule, each of the above teams has plenty to play for, despite the fact that home court advantage won't be a factor this postseason. Matchups through seeding are always important but this year, with home court out of the equation, matchups are what could be the difference between one of these teams making a first-round exit vs. a potential deep run in the postseason.
In an attempt to make sense of it all, here's a brief overview of what these teams have ahead of them.
Aug. 1 vs. Nuggets | Aug. 3 vs. Raptors | Aug. 4 vs. Celtics | Aug. 6 vs. Bucks | Aug. 8 vs. Suns | Aug. 10 vs. Pacers | Aug. 12 vs. Thunder | Aug. 14 vs. Pacers
As our Carlan Gay recently outlined, the Heat have the ingredients to make a deep run this postseason, it's more or less a matter of them making things happen.
Led by the All-Star duo of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, Miami was a surprise team early on in the season but its sustained success has been a credit to the roster's makeup and the coaching of Erik Spoelstra. Ahead of their eight seeding games, the Heat have an outside shot to overtake the Celtics for the No. 3 seed, but they'll need some help.
Miami is 0-2 vs. Boston this season, meaning it would need to finish at least a half-game ahead in the standings to finish third. The Heat will have an opportunity to help themselves as they play the Celtics but still, a finish below third is much more likely.
If the playoff picture were to hold as is, the Heat would take on the Pacers, two teams that have seen a pseudo-rivalry renewed this season. After meeting in the postseason in 2012, 2013 and 2014, things got a bit testy in the most recent meeting between these two teams in 2020, with Butler and Pacers forward T.J. Warren "coming face-to-face in a hostile manner."
Miami is up 2-0 in the season series but Indiana can make up that difference, as the two teams meet twice in four days to finish out their respective seeding schedules. It's amazing to think these teams could meet as many as nine times in Orlando, should they meet in the postseason.
The Heat have had the Sixers number this season, winning the season series 3-1, including a resounding 31-point win in their final meeting on Feb. 3. If Philly moves up, this is the likely 4-5 matchup, meaning Butler will face his former team in the first round of the postseason.
Aug. 1 vs. 76ers | Aug. 3 vs. Wizards | Aug. 4 vs. Magic | Aug. 6 vs. Suns | Aug. 8 vs. Lakers | Aug. 10 vs. Heat | Aug. 12 vs. Rockets | Aug. 14 vs. Heat
For the Pacers, it's fairly simple: Win.
Of course, the above statement applies to each team mentioned, but Indiana controls its own destiny with respect to moving around in the standings. The Pacers open with the Sixers, who they're tied with in the standings and hold a 2-1 advantage over in the season series. A win to open the seeding games would not only give Indiana a full-game lead in the standings, earning the tiebreaker would mean that Philly would have to finish a full-game ahead to surpass them.
After the opener, the Pacers have three straight against teams under .500 in the Wizards (24-40), Magic (30-35) and Suns (26-39) - no win is a given, but each present an opportunity that could be taken advantage of. This stretch is especially important for Indiana, a team that is awaiting the decision of Victor Oladipo, who plans to test how he feels in the team's upcoming scrimmages.
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With Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, Indiana has a uniquely talented starting unit that could potentially make some noise.
Wins over the three lesser opponents would do wonders to gain momentum heading into a final stretch of games against the Lakers, Heat and Rockets. Indiana defeated LA earlier this year but has yet to beat Houston or Miami.
The Lakers might not have much to play for at that point in the seeding games but as mentioned above, the Heat could be playing for an opportunity to move up in the standings or avoid a freefall. Two losses to the Pacers would accelerate said fall, meaning these games could have playoff-like intensity.
Aug. 1 vs. Pacers | Aug. 3 vs. Spurs | Aug. 5 vs. Wizards | Aug. 7 vs. Magic | Aug. 9 vs. Trail Blazers | Aug. 11 vs. Suns | Aug. 12 vs. Raptors | Aug. 14 vs. Rockets
The Sixers might have the most to gain - or lose - through the seeding period.
If the standings were to hold true to form, the Sixers, currently in sixth, would have a first-round date with the Celtics. Because Philly won't have to travel to a raucous TD Garden, this is an encouraging matchup considering it won the season series over Boston by a count of 3-1. One win saw Joel Embiid finish with a monster stat line of 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists and in another, Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Ben Simmons turned in big performances while Embiid sat.
With the recent announcement that Ben Simmons will now be starting at power forward, the Sixers have become much more compelling. Facilitating this move is the emergence of Shake Milton, who will slide into the starting backcourt alongside Richardson. Milton was on fire before the season came to a halt, averaging 17.8 points per game while shooting 57.4% from the field and 60.4% from deep in eight games prior to the suspension. Is it sustainable? Probably not, but he could add some much-needed spacing to the floor.
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While finishing sixth and meeting the Celtics in the first round might be advantageous, it almost guarantees a meeting with the Toronto Raptors, a team with which the Sixers have struggled. Moving up to fifth or fourth would mean a likely first-round meeting with the Heat, who they eliminated from the postseason (albeit a much different team) in 2018, with the winner meeting the Milwaukee Bucks.
This Sixers roster was put together as the answer to slow down Giannis Antetkounmpo and company, giving them just as great of a chance as any other team to eliminate the title favourites early on.
Philadelphia has been an unpredictable team this season, which makes its chances much more intriguing ahead of the season's restart.
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