The Philadelphia 76ers' loss to the New York Knicks on Wednesday night almost assuredly means they will begin the playoffs in the East's seventh position, with New York taking sixth. Though a mere half-game separates Philadelphia (40-39) and New York (40-38), the deficit might as well be 1.5 games, as the Knicks now control the tiebreaker. Should the teams finish the season with identical records, the Knicks will earn the higher seed.
How is that possible? Let's work through the NBA tiebreaking procedure:
Division winner gets precedent over team not winning a division: This one doesn't apply to the Knicks and Sixers. Next.
Head-to-head record: New York's win Wednesday night evened the season series between the teams at two games apiece, which is why the game is so crucial.
Record against teams in own division: Currently, the Knicks have the edge here, with a 9-5 record to Philly's 8-7. If the Sixers win their lone remaining divisional game (Friday against Toronto) and the Knicks lose their last two divisional games (Friday at New Jersey, next Wednesday at Boston), then the league moves to the next tiebreak item. If both those conditions aren't met, though, the NBA stops here and awards the sixth seed to the Knicks.
Record against teams in own conference: New York's edge in this category--it is 26-22 against the East, while the Sixers have a modest 24-25 record--would appear to clinch the sixth seed for the Knicks. The only way the Knicks and Sixers will finish with identical conference records is if New York loses out and Philadelphia wins at least two of its final three games. In that scenario, Philly would have a better overall record, so there'd be no need to go through a tiebreak procedure at all.
In a nutshell, the Sixers can't match the Knicks in the standings and still win the sixth seed. They must beat them outright for the privilege of facing the third seed instead of the second, whomever it is.