Today is March 31. That leaves just eleven days in the NBA regular season. While the days are slowly dwindling, the importance of each game is going the opposite direction. There are a number of seeding battles still to be decided, and those feel even more important than normal this year. A big part of that is the play-in. One on the NBA’s newer innovations has increased the importance of finishing in the top six, added more teams to the discussion (though we’re pretty much down to 10 in the East by this point), and kept at least some importance in a top eight finish given that teams must win twice in a row just to get the eight seed if they finish ninth or tenth.
A dilemma for the Bucks…
More relevant to top-of-the-conference teams like the Bucks, perhaps, is that the East is far stronger than it has been in any recent year. There’s no Pistons or Magic freebie series awaiting anyone in the first round. There’s also the drama of the Nets sitting in the play-in zone, which is going to give either the one or the two seed a first round opponent that they will likely feel they don’t fully deserve. This year’s Nets are a good example of one of the interesting parts of NBA seeding. The general framework of the higher seed being the better outcome once the playoffs come around works more or less, but teams can sometimes gain a matchup advantage by ending up in a lower seed.
Imagine, for example, a very plausible scenario where the Sixers finish in the four seed and the Nets either lose to the Cavs in the first round of the play-in or drop below the Hornets over the next two weeks and ultimately end up in the eight seed. Regardless of how you feel about the specific title chances of Philadelphia and Brooklyn, that’s obviously a pretty brutal gauntlet to the ECF for a one seed. Now imagine that the Nets stay in the eight seed through the end of the regular season and then beat the Cavs to land the seven seed. Having the one seed would be pretty beneficial in this case – you end up with the Cavs/Hornets/Hawks in the first round and might even get the Bulls, Raptors, or a Celtics team minus Robert Williams in the second round.
Isn’t really all that much of a dilemma
This results in a pretty clear takeaway – none of this can be predicted. There’s simply no way to tell what ending up in a certain seed will do for your matchups until (maybe) the last two-three games, at which point there might not be a whole lot you can do to change your own seed anyway. With that in mind, it’s best to always play your best basketball and trust that things will turn out well if you do. Trying to control your own fate by doing anything less rarely works out as well as we would like it to.
The Seeding Picture
Now that we have that covered, let’s take a look at how seeding might turn out in the East. We could, of course, look at the top 10 seeds and break down a bunch of scenarios for potential playoff matchups, but it’s hopefully clear by now that trying to do that from here would lead to a massive amount of possibilities that would ultimately have very little meaning. Focusing in on the top four seeds and where each of those teams might finish is a much easier and more useful goal, so let’s do that.
1. Miami Heat (49-28)
2. Milwaukee Bucks (47-28) – one game back with two more games left
3. Philadelphia 76ers (46-29) – two games back with two more games left
4. Boston Celtics (47-30) – two games back with same amount of games left
The Bucks and Sixers are in a decent spot with their two additional games. Despite being a game back, Milwaukee could still end up tied with Miami regardless of how the Heat play down the stretch. The Sixers are also a little closer than the two game separation might suggest. Obviously those extra games must be won or their utility disappears, but the flexibility they provide is still there.
Miami’s win over Boston last night was pretty massive. We would have had a three-way tie at the top with the Sixers just a game back had that gone Boston’s way. Instead, we’re looking at a much better mountain for Boston and Philly to climb to the top, especially with the Heat and Celtics having just five games left each.
Tiebreakers are obviously pretty relevant here, as they dictate who gets the higher seed if teams finish with the same record. The Bucks took control of the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Sixers the other night, so they have that one. Their season series with Miami is at 2-2, which means we go to conference record. The Heat are 31-16 there while the Bucks are 29-18, which will be a difficult gap to make up. The season series with the Celtics is at 1-2 with one game remaining. If the Bucks lose that game, they won’t have the tiebreaker. If they win it, they can either gain the tiebreaker if both teams are below the Sixers (the Celtics wouldn’t be division winners in that scenario) or if they finish relatively strong in conference play (Boston is 30-18 there which puts the two teams neck-to-neck).
Boston owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami after a 3-0 sweep, and they will own the tiebreaker over the Sixers through divisional record (9-7 v. 6-9 right now), which is used ahead of conference record for teams within the same division.
The last relevant tiebreaker, then is between the Heat and Sixers. That one will very likely end up going to the Heat by virtue of conference record (Philly is 27-18 there).
In the case of three-way ties –
- By virtue of the divisional winner tiebreaker that reigns supreme in multi-team ties, Boston or Philly would get the four seed if the other finishes in first and the Heat and Bucks going the three-way tie for second.
- We then go to head-to-head before divisional record (only in the case of Sixers and Celtics) and conference record.
Heat: @Bulls, @Raptors, Hornets, Hawks, @Magic
This isn’t a particularly easy way to end things for Miami. Chicago hasn’t been great against good teams, but that’s still a road game against the five seed. The Raptors have been red hot and are pushing for seeding. The eight seed and that big play-in advantage is very much in play for the Hornets and Hawks, and both will want to be playing their best basketball for the end of the season regardless. Even the Magic have been getting increasingly competent as the season has gone on. The Heat have won just five of ten, which makes a 3-2 or 2-3 finish very possible here. That would leave them at 51-52 wins.
Bucks: @Nets, Clippers, Mavs, @Bulls, Celtics, @Pistons, @Cavs
Things have largely worked out to this point, but the one issue for the Bucks’ chances at a late-season seeding charge has always been that their late-season schedule is pretty dang hard. The Nets are playing good basketball right now. Paul George is back for the Clippers. The Mavs are rolling too, and they’re fighting for seeding of their own out West. I already talked about a road game against the Bulls above. The Celtics are red-hot and and capable of winning games even without Robert Williams. They always seem to make the Bucks work. The Pistons are a young team working hard to end the season on a high note. The Cavs might be desperate to grab a win to stay out of the play-in by the last day of the season, though that is looking less likely as Toronto continues to roll.
In any case, this is a tough closing stretch. 5-2 would seem like a pretty good way to go, and that would leave the Bucks in need of some help from the teams on Miami’s schedule. On the bright side, Milwaukee is in a solid spot to stay in the top two given their current positioning and the fact that a 4-3 or better finish is very achievable here. Getting to 51-31 puts you in a pretty good spot, and the Bucks are playing well enough to do better than that.
Sixers: @Pistons, Hornets, @Cavs, @Pacers, @Raptors, Pacers, Pistons
There are definitely worse ways to finish a season than this. Philly might have one more run in them. Playing the Pistons and Pacers twice is always nice, and you’ll take the Hornets, Cavs, and Raptors as the hardest parts of a seven-game stretch. If the Sixers win five or six of these games, they can put some pressure on the top two. That would also put them in a good spot to finish ahead of the Celtics.
Celtics: Pacers, Wizards, Bulls, @Bucks, @Grizzlies
The Celtics are almost in a position where they need to win out to reach the top seed. It’s essentially impossible to see them getting there without finishing at least 4-1. But the top seed isn’t the only priority here, and games against the Pacers, Wizards, and scuffling Bulls at home will give Boston a pretty good chance at keeping all of their seeding hopes alive going into their last two games, which could be much more difficult barring decisions from the Bucks and Grizzlies to rest some players. Focus on winning those first three first.