It’s theirs to lose.
With 21 games left to play in the regular season, the Celtics have an (effectively) commanding lead over the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, even if it looks close at first glance. Behold the mighty standings:
There is almost no chance the Heat can catch the Celtics, short of a complete Boston collapse. With Miami a full five games back in the loss column, and two games deeper into the schedule, consider what would have to happen for Miami to pass Boston by season’s end (keeping in mind that Boston holds the tie-breaker by virtue of their 3-0 record against the Heat this season). Miami would have to be close to perfect, even if Boston hits a funk.
Miami finishes 16-3 for an overall record of 59-23.
Boston finishes 12-9 for an overall record of 58-24.
Keep in mind that staggering, tearful Miami has games remaining against Portland, San Antonio, Los Angeles Lakers, and Oklahoma City. And that’s just over the next eight days. Given the way they’ve been playing, a 2-2 record seems entirely feasible for that stretch. Which would leave them only a single available loss to keep our already-unlikely theoretical example still… theoretical.
You can spin the numbers any way you want, but it’s nearly impossible for Miami to take the first overall seed at this point, unless they run the table over the next eight days.
Chicago poses a far greater threat to Boston’s first overall hopes. But with the Bulls three games back in the loss column, and with Boston holding a game in hand, the Bulls will be climbing uphill to get it done.
Chicago finishes 15-5 to end at 59-23.
Boston finishes 12-9 to end at 58-24.
This one is more plausible on the Chicago end of things. The Bulls have the third largest margin of victory in the league over their last 25 games (+6.75 compared to the Celtics +3.50) and precious few remaining games against elite teams (really it’s just Boston and Orlando in April). Assuming they stay hot, beat the mid-level teams on their schedule (Atlanta x 2, Memphis, Utah, Phoenix, New York) and don’t punt any games against bad teams, a .750 close to the season isn’t impossible for the Bulls.
But for Chicago to take the first overall seed, Boston also has to fall apart, relatively speaking. The Celtics are winning at a .754 clip this season. The 12-9 record above would be a .571 winning percentage, an extremely unlikely occurrence unless Boston’s integration of its new players is also sabotaged by a major injury to one or more of the big four. Keep in mind Boston has a busy, but relatively soft schedule ahead of it.
If Boston plays anywhere close to its average to close out the season, it will be facing the #8 seed come the first game of the playoffs and the winner of the 4/5 matchup in the second round, while the Bulls-Heat likely battle it out in the other conference semi-final.
As things look now, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.