After Atlanta’s thrilling win over San Antonio Sunday night, the C’s and Hawks sit tied for the 3rd spot in the Eastern Conference at 45-24. Both teams have 13 games left to play, and their schedules are about equal in terms of opponent strength. More on that later.
The question is: Do you care whether the C’s finish as the 3rd seed or the 4th seed? And more importantly: Should the team go hard for the 3rd seed?
The answers to those questions depend how you feel about potential match-ups. Specifically:
1) Are one of those folks who believes the Celtics match up better against Orlando than they do against Cleveland?
2) Would you rather play Milwaukee in the first round or the one of the Charlotte/Miami/Toronto trio that will finish 6th?
Let’s start with the second question first, and Brian Robb will chime in later with the Orlando/Cleveland discussion.
Milwaukee ranks 5th in the Eastern Conference at 38-30, a full four games ahead of Miami (36-34), Charlotte (35-34) and the Raps (34-34) in the loss column. That’s a significant margin with just a dozen games to go. The Bucks should hold down that 5th spot, and Sports Clubs Stats, which projects playoff standings by running millions of simulations, says Milwaukee has a 77 percent chance of finishing 5th. If the C’s finish 4th, they’ll probably play the Bucks.
And the Bucks, my friends, have been on fire since acquiring John Salmons from Chicago in exchange for Hakim Warrick and Joe Alexander. Since that deal, the Bucks are 14-2, with home wins against Cleveland, Boston and Utah, and road wins at Miami and (on Saturday) Denver.
Their only two losses in that span: A 106-102 thriller at Atlanta on the second end of a back-to-back, and a 101-93 loss at the Clippers.
Milwaukee’s average scoring margin over those 16 games: + 8.3. The Cavs have the best season-long scoring margin in the league at +7.2.
So, umm…should we fear the Bucks? The Bucks?
If last season taught us anything, it’s that we should fear any team that qualifies for the playoffs. The Bucks may not be quite as athletic as last year’s Bulls, but they’re young and increasingly confident, and they’ll have a super-rowdy home crowd. (The Bucks are 23-9 at home, the 9th-best home record in the league).
Andrew Bogut is averaging 25 points and 15.5 rebounds on 60 percent shooting in two games against Boston this year, and he scored well above his season average in two games against the C’s last season.
Bogut has been a nightmarish match-up for Kendrick Perkins.
The Bucks also 3rd in the league in points allowed per possession, and they bring defensive intensity every night.
There’s also this:
C’s Record Last 2 Seasons Avg Margin Avg Margin ’10
Vs. MIL 3-2 +3 +3.5
Vs. CHA 5-1 +12 +25
Vs. MIA 6-1 +6 +6
Vs. TOR 7-0 +9 +8.7
You can obviously debate the usefulness of using numbers from the last two regular seasons to predict the difficulty of a first-round playoff series this season. After all, three of these four teams have key new personnel this season. But the numbers, whether you dismiss them or not, say the C’s have had a tougher time with Milwaukee over the last two seasons than with either of these other three teams.
A couple of caveats. First, the various power ranking measures see very little difference between Milwaukee, Miami and Charlotte. They’re bunched up at Nos. 12, 13 and 14 in John Hollinger’s system, and Basketball Reference’s Pythagorean rankings (based on average scoring margin) have the three teams ranked Nos. 13-15 with very little distance between them. Milwaukee’s season-long scoring margin of +1.7 is not much higher than Charlotte’s (+1.0) or Miami’s (+1.1), according to ESPN.com. Charlotte is ranked 2nd in defensive efficiency; Miami is 8th. All three are in the top 10 in forcing turnovers.
Second caveat: LeBron James missed Milwaukee’s win over Cleveland with an injury, and Dwyane Wade missed the Bucks’ win at Miami with an injury.
Are the Bucks any better than Charlotte/Miami/Toronto? I’m not ready to make that definitive statement yet.
But if the Bucks are the best among those teams, avoiding them would be a good thing. Who has the inside track to the 3rd seed?
The answer: Neither Atlanta or Boston, though the Hawks hold the tie-breaker thanks to their 4-0 white-washing of Boston this season. The prior sentence is incorrect. The Celtics will hold any tie-breaker against the Hawks because of Boston’s status as a division winner. Despite the NBA’s move after the ’06 season to reduce the importance, for seeding purposes, of winning one’s division, being a division winner still trumps head-to-head match-up results for tie-breaking purposes. This doesn’t seem fair to Atlanta, but I’ll take it.
Here’s how the schedules break down the rest of the way:
• Opponent record: 478-416 (.534)
• Home/Road: 8/5
• Back-to-Backs: 3
• Games against teams with something to play for: 8*
* For this category, I counted playoff contenders and post-season teams likely to play hard. Example: The C’s game against Chicago on April 13—their second-to-last game of the season—wouldn’t count here, since the Bulls will almost certainly be eliminated by then. Example #2: The Hawks’ season finale against Cleveland doesn’t count, since the Cavs will have wrapped up the top seed and will likely rest their starters, as they did in the final game of last season.
• Opponent record: 471-428 (.524)
• Home/Road: 6/7
• Back-to-Backs: 2
• Games against teams with something to play for: 7
Pretty even, huh? The C’s have home games against the Spurs, Nuggets, Cavs and Thunder (plus tonight’s roadie in Utah), while the Hawks still must play Cleveland twice and host both the Lakers and Magic.
And Sports Club Stats projects an almost exact 50-50 toss-up between the Hawks and the C’s for the 3rd seed.
So if you care about seedings, every game from here on out is crucial. To be frank: I’m still not sure if I care from the standpoint of first-round opponent. Each of these teams, though imperfect, presents various match-up issues for the Celtics. This is the NBA; every team is going to present a problem or two against any other team. Gun to my head, if you asked me to rank these opponents based on who I’d least like to face in Round 1, I’d go like this:
Brian Robb will be back Tuesday to tackle the other half of this “Should you care about seedings?” debate: Would you rather face Cleveland or Orlando in the 2nd round?