Nuggets' 2023 finals opponent pushed to brink of elimination, Jokic rival advances

Apr 9, 2024; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra talks to referee Karl Lane
Apr 9, 2024; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra talks to referee Karl Lane / Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Nuggets fans are locked in on the Western Conference play-in games and play-in picture and getting ready to focus on the Lakers. But things are getting tense on the other side of the country as well. The Nuggets are squarely focused on taking care of their own business, but the team’s ambitions are to win the Finals and that means eventually beating the Eastern Conference champions.

It’s far too early to tell who that will be at this point, but the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat are two teams with Finals potential and aspirations. Yet somehow, those teams met in the 7/8 play-in game.

East contenders face off in play-in

The Sixers have established themselves as a true threat as they went 31-8 with Joel Embiid in the lineup. The Philly big man was the only player to lead the NBA MVP ladder this season before getting injured. He, of course, won the MVP award last season, dethroning Nikola Jokic, and has established himself as the only possible rival to the Joker.

Miami had a disappointing regular season, but this is what they do. Last season played out in similar fashion, but the team made it out of the play-in as the 8 seed and upset the top 2 seeds in the conference en route to a Finals appearance where they lost to the Nuggets.

So this East play-in game was of particular interest to Denver, as they’ve already seen one potential finals opponent, the Bucks, lose their MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo to injury, casting doubt upon his status for their first-round series against the Pacers.

76ers clinch the 7 seed

This was an ugly game and both teams looked very sloppy on offense at times, but the Sixers ultimately prevailed at home 105-104. Both Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler looked to be hurt throughout the game, but they each gutted it out to the finish and it was Nicolas Batum stepping up with a season-high 20 points to lead the 76ers to victory.

That means Philly locks up the 7 seed and they will battle the Knicks in a first-round playoff matchup. For the Heat, that means they’ll now host a do-or-die play-in game on Friday night. If they lost that one, the defending Eastern Conference champs won’t even qualify for the 2024 playoffs.