Wendell Cruz | USA TODAY Sports

The Nets clinched the Eastern Conference’s 7-seed with a 134-126 win over the Pacers on Sunday to close out the regular season. That means they will face the eighth-seeded Cavaliers on Tuesday at Barclays Center to open the NBA’s play-in tournament.

The situation is pretty straightforward: Beat the Cavs — the Nets have won three of four against Cleveland this season — and they clinch the 7-seed and a first-round playoff matchup with the Celtics. Lose, and they need to play the winner of the Hawks-Hornets game for the 8-seed and a matchup with the Heat. And lose both and their season is over.

And get this: If the Nets advance to the bracket, they might actually have Ben Simmons available when they get there. He is making “pain-free progress” with his balky back, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. That is “fueling hope [Simmons] could debut sometime in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, even if it’s limited to a 10-15 minutes-per-game role.”

More from Woj:

Simmons has been moving more freely on the court and advanced to shooting and 1-on-0 workouts after stops and starts since his trade to the Nets from the Philadelphia 76ers two months ago.

Simmons had an epidural shot in mid-March to subdue pain and irritation with a herniated disc in his lower back. He has found more traction in the past week, and, barring setbacks, there’s an increasing confidence that he could become available to the Nets sometime in a first-round series, assuming the Nets advance out of the play-in tournament.

Simmons was ruled out of the play-in tournament last week. And Woj reports a debut in the first two games of a first-round series “would be too soon.” But it sounds like a Game 3 could be a reasonable target for Simmons to finally take the court, given it would be played roughly two weeks from now. Expectations have to be tempered, but it will be interesting to see what actually happens when he’s finally on the floor with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. We know the ratings will be good in Philadelphia.


James Kratch is the managing editor of ESNY. He previously worked as a Rutgers and Giants (and Mike Francesa) beat reporter for NJ Advance Media.