The last ten days of the regular season promises to be a thrilling one. Only Phoenix and Memphis have locked up their playoff seedings, so everyone’s still jockeying for playoff position.
Before we look at the mini-races, here’s a quick refresher of the NBA tiebreaker rules:
|Two-way ties||Multi-way ties|
|(1) Head-to-head won-lost percentage||(1) Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division|
|(2) Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division||(2) W-L percentage games among the tied teams|
|(3) Division won-lost percentage for teams in the same division||(3) Division won-lost percentage for teams in the same division|
|(4) Conference won-lost percentage||(4) Conference won-lost percentage|
|(5) W-L Percentage vs. Playoff teams, own conference||(5) W-L Percentage vs. Playoff teams, own conference|
|(6) W-L Percentage vs. Playoff teams, other conference||(6) W-L Percentage vs. Playoff teams, other conference|
|(7) Net Points, all games||(7) Net Points, all games|
1. The East’s top seed
Miami (49-28), Milwaukee (48-28), Boston (47-30), Philadelphia (46-30)
• Heat (5) – at Bulls, at Raptors, Hornets, Hawks, at Magic
• Bucks (5) – Mavs, at Bulls, Celtics, at Pistons, at Cavs
• Celtics (4) – Wizards, at Bulls, at Bucks, at Grizzlies
• Sixers (6) – Hornets, at Cavs, at Pacers, at Raptors, Pacers, Pistons
Only 2.5 games separate the Heat from the fourth-placed Sixers, with the latter having a game in hand. Miami and Philly have struggled as of late and are both 5-5 in their last ten games. Boston has lost only six times in ten weeks but are without their defensive anchor Robert Williams for the remainder of the regular season (and most likely the first round). The Bucks are surging—12-4 in their last 16 with Giannis Antetokounmpo looking like he’s already in playoff mode (35 and 12 in his last nine).
Finishing in the top 2 guarantees homecourt through the second round, but it also sets up a dangerous first round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. It’s more likely that the No. 2 seed ends up facing the Nets (more on that below), which means that Miami is under pressure to finish on top. The Bucks and Celtics probably wouldn’t mind facing Brooklyn, while I get the feeling that the Sixers intentionally want to duck the Nets and will settle for a lower seed. Although Philly has the easiest remaining schedule, they might be the most disincentivized.
How it plays out: I picked the Bucks to finish with the best regular season record in the East at the third quarter mark and there’s no reason to second-guess that choice. I’m still hoping that the Sixers finish second and face Brooklyn in round 1, but it’s getting less likely by the day. Here’s my forecast: (1) Bucks, (2) Heat, (3) Celtics, and (4) Sixers.
2. The East play-in seedings
Cleveland (42-35), Brooklyn (40-37), Charlotte (40-37), Atlanta (40-37)
• Cavs (5) – at Knicks, Sixers, at Magic, at Nets, Bucks
• Nets (5) – at Hawks, Rockets, at Knicks, Cavs, Pacers
• Hornets (5) – at Sixers, at Heat, Magic, at Bulls, Wizards
• Hawks (5) – Nets, at Raptors, Wizards, at Heat, Rockets
The Nets, Hornets, and Hawks are in a three-way tie for the eighth spot, with the Cavs only two games up. It’s a precarious lead for the Cavs, however, as they have lost 14 of their last 21 games and are already without All-Star Jarrett Allen and will miss ROY-frontrunner Evan Mobley for at least two more games. The Hornets (8-2 in last ten) and Hawks (7-3 in last ten) are picking up steam, while the Nets now have a full-time Kyrie Irving.
The seventh and eighth ranked teams assure themselves of a twice-to-beat advantage in the play-in tournament, which means that the final two teams will have a smaller margin for error. The Cavs theoretically control their own destiny, but it looks like their luck has run out. Brooklyn has the easiest schedule and play both the Hawks and Cavs. This is an ideal scenario for them because they can experiment with Irving in the lineup and chase wins at the same time.
The Hornets’ and Hawks’ schedules look similar: against three playoff teams and two lottery-bound teams. The Hawks currently lead the tiebreaker because of their better division record (8-6 versus Charlotte’s 6-7). They each play the Heat one more time and those games could prove crucial because Miami is in the same division.
3. The third and fourth seed in the West
Golden State (48-29), Dallas (48-30), Utah (46-31), Denver (46-32)
• Mavs (4) – at Bucks, at Pistons, Blazers, Spurs
• Warriors (5) – Jazz, at Kings, Lakers, at Spurs, at Pelicans
• Jazz (5) – at Warriors, Grizzlies, Thunder, Suns, at Blazers
• Nuggets (4) – at Lakers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Lakers
How the tables have turned. At the end of 2021, the Golden State had a league-best 27-7 record and Utah was third at 26-9; Denver was 17-16, while Dallas was 17-18. Since the new year, the Mavs have gone 31-12 (third overall), the Nuggets 29-16 (fifth), while the early season leaders have turned into sub-0.500 teams. Now they’re all fighting for homecourt advantage in the first round.
The Mavs own the season series versus each of the Warriors (3-1), Jazz (2-1), and Nuggets (2-1); they also have the easiest remaining schedule.
The Dubs play the Jazz on Sunday in what could be a pivotal game. A win likely locks up at least the fourth seed, while a loss not only pulls them down to within a game of Utah and Denver but also puts them on the backfoot in a tiebreaker scenario. Either Utah or Denver will win the Northwest division (Golden State is in the same division as Phoenix). Utah has the edge in conference record, while Denver is currently just a game behind the Dubs.
Utah has the toughest schedule on paper. But since both the Suns and Grizzlies have locked up their playoff seedings, it’s conceivable that they may want to give their starters more rest. These two teams have been very good even without their star players though, so maybe it doesn’t change anything for the Jazz, particularly with the way they’ve been playing (1-5 in their last six).
The Nuggets have a fairly manageable schedule; three of the four teams they’ll face are below them on the standings. But they’ve been the ultimate trick-or-treat team this year, which is why it’s difficult to project how they’ll finish the season. They’re elite when Nikola Jokic is on the floor, but since he doesn’t play the full 48 minutes, their win probability ends up at the hands of Bones Hyland, Monte Morris, and Will Barton. They could easily go 4-0 or 1-3 depending on how those guys shoot the ball.
How it plays out: Mavs have the advantage, Dubs and Nuggets have a relatively easy schedule, Jazz are sliding, so: (3) Mavs, (4) Warriors, (5) Nuggets, and (6) Jazz.
4 The final two play-in spots in the West
New Orleans (34-43), San Antonio (32-45), Los Angeles Lakers (31-46)
• Pelicans (5) – at Clippers, at Kings, Blazers, at Grizzlies, Warriors
• Spurs (5) – Blazers, at Nuggets, at Timberwolves, Warriors, at Mavs
• Lakers (5) – Nuggets, at Suns, at Warriors, Thunder, at Nuggets
After a 1-12 start to the season, New Orleans has the inside track on the final two play-in spots. The CJ McCollum trade is paying off. Since McCollum debuted on Feb. 10, the Pelicans are 12-11. I feel weird writing that as if it were a positive thing, but the West are a bit top-heavy this season, and the last three play-in teams will finish below 0.500 (including the Clippers who are already play-in bound).
The Lakers’ “paper superteam” has turned from a middling team into a downright atrocious one. They were 21-22 through the middle of January; they’ve been 10-24 since. LeBron James and Anthony Davis returned in the important game against New Orleans, but they still lost. It’s a myth that these two can save the Lakers season considering that the team has been a sub-0.500 team even when AD plays (17-21). The Pelicans swept the season series against the Lakers, while the Spurs also hold the tiebreaker edge over L.A. because of San Antonio’s superior conference record.
This was supposed to be the year that the Spurs finally goes to the tank, but they just kept hanging in there and now suddenly find themselves firmly in the play-in mix. They have the edge in tiebreakers: they won the season series against the Pelicans (3-1) and have a better conference record than the Lakers.
How it plays out: The Pelicans have the easiest remaining schedule and have a two-game lead. With these mediocre teams, making up two games is a tall order. The Spurs have the tiebreaker advantage and an easier schedule than the Lakers. I have mixed feelings about the Spurs jeopardizing their draft position for a one-game play-in appearance, but keeping the Lakers out is itself a cause for celebration. No surprises here: (9) Pelicans and (10) Spurs.
(Note: I’ll cover the individual battles in Sunday’s Keepin’ It Real)