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How serious should battle be for No. 1 seed for Sixers, Nets?

There isn't much home-court advantage this season, but could landing the top seed still provide benefits?

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The Sixers and Nets, both 37-17, have been in the running for top seeding in the Eastern Conference.

Is it the brass ring or fool’s gold? Here in the belly of April, it’s hard to tell which mineral best describes what three teams are chasing in the top-heavy East: First place in the conference.

In bygone years, this query would be met with a collective “duh.” Well, yeah, getting the top seed is important, and why would it not be? Securing that bag came with fringe goodies: boisterous playoff home crowds who shake the arena, and the benefit of sleeping in your own bed during a best-of-seven series, and other ancillary comforts of home.

But, as you can tell, this is no ordinary season.

Tonight on ESPN: 76ers vs. Nets (7 ET)

So, then: When the Sixers and Nets meet Wednesday for top-spot bragging rights which might last, oh, 15 minutes until the next game, nobody’s quite sure what degree of importance to attach to it. The easy assumption is that both teams, along with the Bucks who lurk nearby, would rather have the top seed than not.

These three teams, by far the best in the East, are currently separated by only a few games, and this race projects to be a fast and furious finish when the regular season ends in roughly a month. Then, the “survivor” will have the satisfaction of being “the favorite” in the playoffs, however flimsy that distinction will be.

Yet, the top seed won’t carry the usual weight this year, mainly because there’s no true home court playoff advantage, not inside arenas that will hold a fraction of fans because of health and safety protocols. And most likely, a good many of those fans will be spaced apart and sitting well up from the floor, meaning their voices won’t carry very far unless some happen to be opera singers.

The home crowd is typically and historically the edge in such situations, especially in a Game 7, and particularly when the home team needs an emotional push or perhaps a respectable jeer toward the star on the other bench. Too bad; very little of that will fill the air this time, leaving these home courts rather moot and mute.

Why chase for No. 1 in East matters

Shaq, Kenny and Chuck look at the potential seedings in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Therefore, the chance to become the East representative in the NBA Finals will mostly be decided by … pure basketball. How novel is that?

Also, there’s the issue of who really needs first place if only for psychological reasons. In that sense, the Sixers are the clear candidate. That’s because the Bucks have been there and done that the last two years, while the Nets are loaded with stars with deep playoff runs on their resumes, so no big deal to them if they come up short of the top seed.

The Sixers, on the other hand, need it badly. This is a team that reloaded and revamped in the offseason somewhat out of desperation, so they’re seeking a bit of justification for those moves. Also, the Sixers’ playoff run ended depressingly last season, which forced those major changes. Plus, they’ve held onto first place (barely) for much of this season, and losing their grip would give the impression they fell short, a negative perception that they’d rather not carry into the playoffs.

Finally, the Sixers are much better at home (20-5) than on the road (17-12) and again, from a mental standpoint, the top seed would be greeted with a sigh of relief inside Doc Rivers’ locker room.

Not that the Sixers are running low on confidence. In advance of Wednesday’s showdown, Sixers guard Ben Simmons said this about the James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant-fused Nets: “Obviously Brooklyn has a lot of talent, but at the end of the day, there’s only one ball and you got to play defense.”

And Rivers, asked for his take on the Nets adding LaMarcus Aldridge last week to the mix: “I don’t give it a lot of thought.”

The Sixers have reason for bravado: Brooklyn offers little resistance, at least on paper, against Embiid. Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan are both beyond their primes, and Aldridge has never been an elite defender in the post anyway. Meanwhile, Embiid is on a season-long tear, interrupted only briefly because of injury, and has the Kia MVP award within his sights.

Also, the Sixers, rated seventh defensively in the NBA in fewest points allowed, might be the best equipped team to deal with the Nets’ Big Three weaponry. Embiid wouldn’t need to burn too much energy trying to guard either Brooklyn center and can therefore cheat and double-up on a Nets star. Simmons of course is another elite defender who can provide resistance against Durant and Harden, while Danny Green and George Hill bring veteran wisdom against Irving.

Embiid is taking the long-term view of the picture. It’s too premature and early, he said, to become fixated on one team or even two. This much is true; any team with championship aspirations will see plenty of company in that regard.

“I mean, everyone is fighting to win the whole thing,” Embiid said. “That’s all we’re focused on … If it’s got to be Brooklyn, and we want to win the championship, we got a bunch of teams we got to get through. They might be one of them. So that’s what we’re focused on, we just focus on ourselves.”

Yet, that also sounds like typical jargon. In order to compete, you must also focus on the opponent and what they bring. In that sense, the Sixers, Bucks and Nets are fully aware of each other and what they’re all chasing. Ultimately, it’s about the NBA championship, but one way of gaining an advantage for that championship is by winning the top seed in the East first.

Well, maybe. Again, this is a weird season, and the “home court” arena will be less than full, and these three teams will be mindful of their health here in the stretch run. That means, in the final few weeks, we’ll get to see who puts a premium on the top seed and who doesn’t, based on the number of rest games for the stars.

Of the three teams, the Nets will most likely pump the brakes in the name of good health, seeing how you can use a stopwatch to measure how long Harden, Durant and Irving have been on the floor together to this point. Brooklyn’s intentions and priority, therefore, is already revealed.

So it’s Nets vs. Sixers on Wednesday to see who assumes the top floor in the East. Yet, as we can see, that elevator will be busy between now and next month.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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