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2024 NBA Play-In Takeaways: Is Philadelphia headed to the Eastern Conference Finals?

2024 SoFi Play-In Tournament - Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 17: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during the game against the Miami Heat during the 2024 NBA Play-In Tournament on April 17, 2024 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

Things move fast in the NBA playoffs, so to help you stay on top of things, from now through at least the end of the second round, we will have nightly takeaways from the postseason action.

Is Philadelphia headed to the Eastern Conference Finals?

We’ve been waiting for an epic Joel Embiid playoff run. Is this the year?

Philly has been playing as well as anyone in recent weeks. After Joel Embiid returned to the lineup from his meniscus surgery, they won eight in a row with the best defense in the league and a top-10 offense over that stretch. Put simply, they were back to looking like contenders.

The stars have aligned for that run. With their win over the Heat, Philadelphia is on the opposite side of the bracket from Boston and there’s a path to the conference Finals.

It is not an easy path — the series with the Knicks is a toss-up. Jalen Brunson will get his, and Isaiah Hartenstein has had an under-the-radar season and will push Embiid, but without Julius Randle (shoulder) New York needs more shot creation. If Tyrese Maxey gets going, that’s a winnable series for Philly. Ultimately, the 76ers have the best player in the series if Embiid is close to himself. After that would come Milwaukee — a team loaded with talent (we’ll assume Giannis Antetokounmpo would be back at that point) but has never put it together consistently; or an Indiana team that has defended better since the arrival of Pascal Siakam but still isn’t great on that end. Either of those is very winnable for Philadelphia. (As a side note, Indiana has a real shot at the upset win in that series. The Pacers were a matchup problem during the season when Indy won four of five meetings, and the Bucks will be without their MVP candidate Antetokounmpo to at least start the series due to his calf injury. If Tyrese Haliburton can find his early season form, Indiana can advance.)

Then would likely come Boston, but by that point Embiid will have gotten his conditioning back and… who knows?

This could be Joel Embiid’s year, things have lined up for him as well as he could hope.

Butler? Caruso? Enough with the injuries already

Come on basketball gods, don’t do this to us.

Injuries are always a part of the NBA’s long playoff march, but can we get through the play-in without some team-altering injuries?

Jimmy Butler limped out of the Wells Fargo Arena after a 5-of-18 shooting night, his right leg in a protective sleeve and fears of a meniscus injury out there after Kelly Oubre Jr. bought a pump-fake, got up in the air came down on Butler, then in the process fell on his leg.

An MRI is coming Thursday, his status for Friday night is unknown, but the issue is bigger than that. Without peak Playoff Jimmy Butler the Heat, even if they beat the Bulls Friday night in the final play-in game, would be a dead team walking against Boston in the first round.

Miami’s opponent on Friday night, Chicago, is likely without soon-to-be All-Defensive Team player Alex Caruso. He reportedly has a “significant” left ankle sprain after teammate Andre Drummond ran into him at mid-court.

That seems about the most 2024 Bulls thing that could happen, and not having the team’s best defender against the Heat — even without Butler — is an issue.

All of that a day after Zion Williamson had to leave the end of a close game where he was dominant because of a hamstring injury, and now he is out for the Pelicans win-or-go-home play-in game against the Kings.

Basketball gods, can we get through the weekend without more injuries, please?

Nothing motivates fans like free food

It’s an insane thing to type, but it’s real:

A free chicken giveaway helped turn Philadelphia’s night around. Seriously.

Philadelphia trailed by 11 midway through the third quarter when Embiid fouled Miami’s Caleb Martin, sending him to the free throw line for two shots. The 76ers have a promotion where, in the third quarter, if an opposing player misses two consecutive free throws after a foul, the entire crowd gets a coupon for free chicken nuggets from a popular fast food chicken chain not open on Sunday.

Nothing motivates a crowd like free food — did you see how happy Boban made Clippers fans on Sunday?

Martin missed the first and a crowd that had been out of the game because of the 76ers’ play suddenly woke up — they were one free throw away from free chicken, and they got loud. Martin missed the second free throw and the arena exploded.

The 76ers, fired up by the crowd, instantly went on an 8-0 run and it was a three-point game. It was on and the Philly crowd was totally into it the rest of the way.

This is nothing new — Lakers fans used to chant “We want tacos” at the end of Kobe-era Lakers games because if the Lakers scored enough points, fans got a coupon for two free Jack-In-the-Box tacos. (That one never made sense to me — I live in Southern California, and you can throw a rock from wherever you’re standing and hit a quality taco stand. Some of the street corner tacos in this city are Mexico City-quality street food. Why people get excited over the greasiest, arguably worst tacos in the city amazes me, but… nothing motivates fans like free food.)

The 76ers are going to need more than a chicken run (no, not that Chicken Run) to beat the Knicks. But it can’t hurt. Give the crowd free food and they will go wild.