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Figuring out the playoff picture

As we embark on the final week of the regular season, the playoff picture is finally starting to come into focus. Unless the Bobcats off a miracle and the Pistons collapse we are left with a top 8 of the Cavs, Celts, Magic, Hawks, Heat, Sixers, Bulls, and Pistons. Only two of those teams though (Cavs and Hawks) are comfortably nestled into their seeds right now with a cushion. The other six will be fighting for their seeding, likely all the way through the final night of the regular season. Unsettled seeding situations like this have been commonplace in the stacked Western Conference in past years, but its been rare to see six teams go at it until the final bell in the East.

The race comes down to three groups of two teams fighting for a positioning. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference standings as of Thursday morning to break it down:

1. yCleveland
2. yBoston 4.0
3. yOrlando 5.0
4. xAtlanta 18.5
5. xMiami 22.0
6. xPhiladelphia 22.5
7. Chicago 25.0
8. Detroit 25.0

I analyzed the remaining schedules of all these contenders and decided to make some educated guesses on how things will shake out this final week:

  • The Celtics will beat out the Magic for the 2 seed.

The Rockets did the C’s a huge favor Tuesday night by defeating the Magic in Houston, giving the Celts a one game buffer over Orlando with 4 games to play. Let’s take a look at these teams four remaining contests.

Boston: vs. MIA, @CLE, @PHI, vs. WAS
Orlando: vs. NY, @NJ, @MIL, vs. CHA

The Celtics clearly have the tougher schedule to finish out, facing three playoff teams compared to Orlando facing none. However the Celtics have a greater margin of error when you consider that their one game lead is actually a 1 1/2 game lead when you take into account they will hold the tiebreaker edge over the Magic (record vs. Eastern Conference) if they were to tie after 82 games.

So even if you chalk up a the C’s game in Cleveland as a loss, as long as they go 3-0 in their other games, a probable scenario given the fact that two of the games are at home. In addition, the two playoff teams the Celtics are facing (Miami and Philly) they generally fare well against. In fact they have won the last 6 out of 8 against Miami at home and Philly on the road.

A 3-1 Celtics record to finish out the year also would only be necessary if the Magic win out, a strong possibility, but I wouldn’t put it past them to drop one against one of these mediocre teams like they did last week at home against Toronto. If Orlando does drop one of these final five, you can pencil the C’s into the 2nd spot as there is no way the C’s are going worse than 2-2 to close out this year’s campaign.

  • The Heat will best the Sixers for the 5th seed

Again let’s take a look at the closing schedules here for these teams. As additional background, the season series between the teams is tied at 2-2 and as of today the Heat would hold the Conference tiebreaker over the Sixers but those records will change in the last week.

Miami (41-37) 4 games remaining: @BOS, vs. NY, @ATL, vs. DET
Not exactly an easy slate for the Heat. The game in Boston will be tough and its likely the Pistons game will have seeding implications for Detroit that last night of the season. However, the game in Atlanta will be meaningless for the Hawks and the Heat generally play well at home (26-13) so a .500 finish seems like a fair guess.
Prediction for final 4 games: 2-2
Final Record: 43-39

Philadelphia (40-37) 5 games remaining: @CHI, CLE, @TOR, BOS, @CLE
Woof. That’s all you can say after looking at that slate. An absolutely brutal finish for the Sixers with three games against two of the best teams in the league, along with a road tilt in the United Center, where the Bulls are a tough team to play (26-12 at home). Even the game against a non-playoff foe in Toronto could be challenging as the Raptors are playing better ball lately (6-4 in last 10) Philly better hope Cleveland rests its starters during the regular season finale because if they don’t, the Sixers could be in danger of falling to the 7th or 8th spots.
Prediction for final 5 games: 2-3
Final Record 42-40

  • The Bulls will hold off the Pistons for the 7th seed

Chicago (38-40): 4 games remaining: PHI, CHA, @DET, TOR
The Bulls finish out the year with a favorable stretch, playing 3 of 4 at home where they play extremely well (26-12) The battle for the 7 spot will likely come down to Monday Night’s contest in Detroit. If the Bulls win that one, they will win the season series against the Pistons 3-1, so barring a collapse in their other 3 games, that would likely clinch the right for the Bulls to avoid Cleveland in the 1st round.

A loss in Detroit would not be devastating for the Bulls if they can take care of business at home, but they would need some help since a Piston win would give them the tiebreaker edge over the Bulls due to conference record.
Prediction for final 4 games: 3-1
Final Record: 41-41

Detroit (38-40) 4 games remaining: NJ, @IND, CHI, @MIA
The Allen Iverson saga came to a merciful end this past week, as the Pistons announced he would miss the remainder of the season with a sore back. The elimanation of that distraction has appeared to improved the Pistons play as they have won their last 2 games since AI’s departure, including a blowout last night in New York. Their schedule in the final 4 is tougher than Chicago’s but not overwhelming difficult. As noted above, the game against the Bulls is clearly pivotal but the games in Indiana will not be easy and the finale in Miami likely will still have seeding implications for the Heat.

This Piston team has underachieved all year but I would not envy Cleveland or Boston in the 1st round if they draw this team, as they easily have the most talent and playoff experience of any team in the bottom half of the east. I would not consider the Pistons to be a legitimate threat to beat either of those teams, but I would expect the Pistons’ opponent to break more of a sweat than the Bulls’ first round opponent.
Prediction for final 4 games: 3-1
Final Record: 41-41

I look at potential 1st round match up for the C’s along with some final thoughts after the jump

Based on these predictions, we would be left with a 1st round with four intriguing match ups:

(1) Cleveland vs. (8) Detroit
(2) Boston vs. (7) Chicago
(3) Orlando vs. (6) Philadelphia
(4) Atlanta vs. (5) Miami

Chicago as a first round opponent would be the most favorable foe for this Celtics team, especially if Kevin Garnett can stay on the floor. At this point though the Celtics still have a pretty even chance of facing Miami, Philly, Chicago or Detroit. There will be plenty of scoreboard watching in the final week to see how this all plays out, but if the Celtics roster returns to full strength as anticipated, there will be no need to worry as the Green should easily dispatch any of these squads.

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