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The 3rd Seed: Do You Care?

 

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:

Boston:

• 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.

Atlanta:

• 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:

1) Bucks

2) Bobcats

3) Heat

4) Raptors

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?

  • Dave

    Don’t care. Might care a little more if the first round was 5 games. But, if we think we can contend, we have to be able to beat first round talent in a seven games series.

    Then its irrelevant to me if we play Orlando then Cleveland, or Cleveland then Orlando. And if we can’t contend, I don’t really care which team might beat us on the road to the finals (though I don’t want to lose to the Lakers in the finals).

  • Dave

    Sorry to the people who get bent out of shape over the “we”. I don’t think we play for the team, but its easier to type and is consistent with 30 years of following the team.

  • Rocci

    The only thing that would matter to me would be getting Orlando to match up against Cleveland before we do. Since that would require Orlando to fall back to 4th place, I’m not holding my breath.

    Other than that though, it doesn’t matter to me who we play in the first round. If we can’t win our first round matchup, I guess it probably wasn’t gonna happen anyways, right?

  • Rocci

    @Dave: Agreed about the “we” thing. It’s just easier to type.

  • Jay P

    @Dave

    Nothing wrong with saying “we” any true fan considers themselves as much of a part of the team as any of the players. I think we’ve earned that right while suffering through the mid-late the previous 10 years of Celtic basketball. We’ve stuck by them, and this is our team.

    Far as the playoffs go, I absolutely want the 3rd seed. I want no part of the Bucks, they have early round upset written all over them. Bogut scares the crap out of me, and Salmons is a guy who if he gets hot can shoot you right out of the playoffs. Oh and I hate Brandon Jennings, bout the only reason I’d want to play the Bucks is to hopefully see him get smacked in the mouth at some point.

    We need to play hard and go on a streak here. Let Atlanta deal with them, and I look forward to watching that series, it will be interesting.

  • DeVelaine

    According to what I’ve seen for playoff seeding, if we finish tied with Atlanta and take the Atlantic as well, we get third. So as long as we at least match Atlanta through the last stretch of the season, we should be fine.

    And there’s no reason to watch Perk get killed by Bogut if we have to. Let’s hope for third and go from there.

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    @DeV: In re-reading the rules today, I think you’re right, though they are worded confusingly and differently in different places. I’m verifying with a couple of other sources now. Thanks.

  • jay

    The rules aren’t confusing: division leader is a tiebreaker before head-to-head. We’re going to win our division; Atlanta is 3.5 games behind Orlando. So it is very likely we will hold the tiebreaker if necessary.

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    There has been a ton of confusion about whether the division>head-to-head rule applies to seeding, home court or both.

    In any case, I apologize for the initial error.

  • Carlos R.

    Any team but the bucks in the first round. That’s a sure/grueling 6-7 games series before Cleveland or Orlando.

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    Fear the Deer?

  • Perry

    I’m not ruling out procuring the 2 seed, especially since Orlando choked last year, but most definitely either the 2 or 3 seed would be a more coveted spot. If we all agree Cleveland is the team to beat I’d rather play them in the conference finals instead of the semis. In doing so you avoid Milwaukee (maybe the hottest team in the NBA), and Atlanta. The Hawks would be tested by the Bucks, and even if they do manage to advance they would have a daunting task in round two. Chances are Cleveland won’t even be pushed to the brink in round one, so they will be well rested. Atlanta does not match up well with Cleveland.

    Taking for granted we would advance out of the first round, the Magic with home court doesn’t scare me. I have the utmost respect for Orlando, but I believe we have better personnel at the wing now than last year. Quis could be huge in that series. However, let’s forget about Gortat.

  • slam

    I agree with your rankings for who I’d least like to see in the first round, but I’m more focus on the 2nd round. Who do we match up better with? Cleveland or Orlando?

  • What More Can I Say?

    @slam

    Orlando. And I want the third seed to play Orlando in the 2nd round because I feel that they got away with that win last year cuz the C’s were not at full strength. It would be payback time.

    @anyone & everyone.

    I want the C’s to get the best seed they can get. 3 or 2. And it has nothing to do with the Bucks and everything to do with having the whole NBA world tune into the most intriguing Eastern Conference Finals since MJ was playing in Chicago. I believe that if Lebron is gonna get a title this soon, it’s gotta be through the C’s.

    Something to think about though. If the C’s do draw the 4th seed and meet up with Cleveland in the 2nd round…it would be a very similiar scenario to the one that played out 2 years ago. Except obviously…the Cavs have the home court advantage.

  • aaron

    Boston needs to be #3, another 7 game series against a pesky team like the Bucks will wear the C’s out too much like last year against the Bulls. Even getting through the first round against the Bucks, they would be too spent in the 2nd round w/ Cleveland if they start at the #4 seed. They can do better against any of the bottom 3 teams(who couldn’t), but even w/out home advantage, the way the C’s are playing right now, Orlando doesn’t present the problem they did last year. KG’s massive improvement defensively right now(even if he is slower than before) is ten times more potent than the last home lost against Orlando when he got blown by at the end of the game by Lewis. The C’s lost last year because no one could stop lewis inside or out. KG(even slower) is one of few real defenders to stop him, especially w/ playoff mentality. At #3, the Celtics can play a team @#6 better this year, be fresher for the 2nd round, and if they bring the instensity we just saw against Dallas in the fourth q, I see a trip to the Finals. Orlando in the 2nd round is not a problem like last year, and I really like the C’s chances against Cleveland right now(only because they are playing more like the first game of the season when they won @ Cleveland). If they skip past the Hawks in the standings, they can actually get out of the East. The H’s(maybe the Bucks) are the real challenges the C’s face right now. Cleveland will eventually beat the Hawks, so Boston won’t need to face them(phew), and bring on the West(title?).

  • stephen

    We don’t want to face Milwaukee in the first round, so finishing number 3 would matter.You don’t want an opening series marathon like the C’s had against Chicago last year. Even though KG looks like he will be ready the Bucks have been damn good the last month or so. The C’s will knock them out however it would go 6 or 7 games to do it. We also must avoid Atlanta –too quick—too athletic.

  • mitch

    relax zach, the bucks beat us by 2 points last time, and we also played terribly in that game…so i will take our chances against that little punk jennings

  • Cptn Bubbles

    Most of all, I want to see Clev. play the Bobkittens. Charlotte is like a nemesis to the Cavs. It may be something similar to the old Golden St. vs the Mavs playoff choke scenario. It’s odd because Charlotte has been great vs the Lakers in the recent past as well.

  • Jay P

    @mitch

    I honestly didn’t really think the Celtics played terrible in that game. Maybe not their 100% best (certainly not as well as they played against Dallas the other day) but you gotta give some credit to the Bucks for that game.

    I have every confidence the Cetlics would take that series, that’s not the point. The point is the Bucks are going to test and push them more than any other first round team they could get (Toronto, Miami, Charlotte) and they could potentially drain them for their second round match-up. Also, I’d rather see Orlando in the second round than Cleveland.

    But let’s face the road to the finals goes through Cleveland anyway, so we’ll have to beat them at some point. Will it matter if it’s round 2 after a tough match-up with the Bucks? I don’t know, but if I have may way, I’d much rather see them in the ECF.

  • I love Green

    I care about getting the 3 seed because then we don’t have to play Cleveland earlier on. Plus, I want us to get revenge on Orlando for last year. If the Hawks beat the Bucks and play Cleveland it won’t be gaurenteed that we play the cavs in the ECF. It won’t be gaurenteed that we get to the ECF either. Even though we’re 1-3 against Orlando I still think we’d be able to beat them in a series, its not like they dominated us this season.

  • DRJ1

    Doesn’t matter. All playoff teams are tough. If the Cs play their game the way they know how, they can beat anybody. If they don’t, they can’t beat anybody.

    Seeding is irrelevant. We’re not trying to win this thing with trickery or luck. It’s not about OTHER teams and how they seed, or even how they play — it is, and always was, only about THIS team, and how it’s playing.

    Now they’ve shown that they’re ready and able to play at their top level. And there is (or rather, should be) NO question about motivation for the playoffs — that’s what they’ve been waiting for all season. All this talk about how old they are, how sick, how unmotivated, unable… that’s gonna stick with them. They have something to prove.

    Bottom line: Bad health-luck can stop them. I don’t see anything else.

  • J

    Ugh home games…we seem to play worse at home so those 8 home games look more daunting than those away games.

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  • http://www.rav.com rav

    We’ve handled Charlotte and Toronto. We’ve blown out the Bobcats everytime and Sheed always brings it against the Raptods (why?). I would love to have either.

    Any team with DWade (as millions have said before) is dangerous, but they can’t beat us 4 times.

    Only the Bucks pose a threat. Bogut owns Perk. I’d think that our veteran edge, overall talent and the fact that we’ll flip the switch/turn the corner/metaphor of your choice here by then gives us the series. It’ll likely go to 7, just like the past two years ;)

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  • milwaukeefan

    why hate jennings?

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