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Art Garcia

The Hawks have to finish with a better record than the Celtics in order to avoid a tiebreaker.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Who plays who: Figuring out the NBA tiebreaker system

Posted Apr 4 2010 12:17PM

Kobe Bryant rewrote the Western Conference playoff bracket with the last-second flick of the wrist six years ago. Lawyers almost did the same in 2008.

Bryant's buzzer-beating 3-pointer in double overtime against Portland in the last game on the last night of the 2003-04 regular season began a ripple effect that changed matchups, flights patterns, schedules and scouting reports. The Lakers won the Pacific Division over Sacramento and claimed the No. 2 seed. That one game changed the playoff path for four teams and the makeup of two first-round series, not to mention each of the future rounds.

Seeds were again on the line two years ago going into the last few nights of the season, as the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets jockeyed for position atop of the West. But instead of Kobe or Chris Paul or Yao Ming deciding their fate, the ball nearly found its way into the hands of one New York team not found in the standings.

Lawyers had checked in at the scorer's table prepared to help decide who would be No. 1. The NBA's basketball operations department found a loophole in tiebreaker rules, as a perfect storm nearly hit those three teams. Had they ended up with the same record in 2007-08, the Lakers (Pacific) and Hornets (Southwest) would have claimed division titles, with Houston finishing "behind" New Orleans.

Sounds easy enough until basketball ops, with input from its legal console, perused the fine tiebreaker print. Three-ways ties at the time were determined by round-robin record among the teams in question. Short version, Houston had the best record against the other two, so the Rockets would have been the No. 1 seed in the West without winning their own division.

Playoff tiebreaker reference guide
Two teams (top 5 tiebreakers):
1. Division winner
2. Head-to-head record
3. Record against teams in own division (if teams are in same division)
4. Record against teams in own conference
5. Record against playoff eligible teams in own conference

Problem? The league sure saw it as an outcome that didn't make sense. So instead of dealing with that potential headache in the future, an incentive was added.

"Prior to last season," NBA spokesman Tim Frank said, "we added division winner as the first tiebreaker in an effort to provide a larger benefit to capturing a division title."

Sounds fair, unless you're the Hawks. Destined to finish with one of the top four records in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta is also staring at a possible tie with Boston. Cleveland and Orlando will likely finish in the top two spots, leaving third and fourth for the Hawks and Celtics.

Playoff tiebreaker reference guide
More than two teams (top 5)
1. Division winner
2. Record in games among tied teams.
3. Record against teams in own division (if tied teams are in same division)
4. Record against teams in own conference.
5. Record against playoff teams eligible in own conference

Both will have homecourt advantage in the first round, but here's where that division tiebreaker comes into play. Even though Atlanta swept the season series 4-0 for Boston, the Celts get the third seed due to winning the Atlantic. Why does it matter? The No. 3 seed would avoid the top-seeded Cavaliers until the conference finals, provided both get that far.

"The rule is what it is and I don't have any problem with that," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "I think it should be that way. I think if you win the division that should trump anything else. The division is almighty. That's something that we continue to strive to do."

The Hawks trail Orlando by four games in the Southeast with six games left. Of more importance than catching the Magic is finishing ahead of the Celtics.

"We're not completely out of it right now," Woodson continued. "But to win your division says a lot. We just have to beat [Boston] outright. We basically control our own destiny and that's what you want."

To his credit, Boston coach Doc Rivers sided with the Hawks.

"The team that's won the most games between the two should get [the tiebreaker]," he said with a sly smile, "but since it's not that way..."

Rivers thought the recent tiebreaker changes were set up to favor the team that won the season series. He added that perhaps the league office "missed this one somehow." The rule, though, didn't ignore the season series. The rationale, as Frank said, was to reward division winners.

Division champions are only assured of a top-four seed and the tiebreaker (in any situation) over a playoff team that didn't win its division. Homecourt advantage isn't guaranteed for a division champ. In any series, the team with the best record has homecourt. Lower seeded teams have enjoyed homecourt before, including No. 5 Houston over No. 4 Utah two years ago.

The current West playoff picture is another study in the tweaked tiebreaker. Dallas, Denver, Utah and Phoenix are each tied at 50-27. The Mavericks and Nuggets, by virtue of leading their respective divisions, have to be seeded ahead of the Jazz and Suns. Dallas actually moved back to second Saturday night after losing to Oklahoma City because Denver won later that evening.

Dallas began Saturday second, dropped to third behind Northwest-leading Utah after the Thunder loss, but Denver caught the Jazz later that night by beating the Clippers. The Nuggets have the head-to-head tiebreaker over Utah, making them the Northwest leaders at the moment. Dallas won the season series over Denver, giving the Mavs that tiebreaker.

So it doesn't matter that Utah leads the season series over Dallas. Since the Jazz are up 2-1 on Phoenix, Utah checks in fourth going into Sunday. The Jazz and Suns finish the season against each other in Salt Lake City. Confused yet?

Back to the East. Now should the Celtics and Hawks meet in the playoffs with identical regular-season records, Boston receives the homecourt edge because of that division tiebreaker. There are also several multi-team scenarios in the tightly-packed West this year where a lower seed would have the homecourt over a higher seed among teams with matching records.

While the tiebreakers rules were adjusted before last season, one constant for the majority of teams in the playoff race is the importance of every game down the stretch. As with most years, the likelihood of little being determined, especially in the West, remains until the last possible moment.

"It's going to go all the way to the last day of the season again," Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki said, "so it's tough to predict what's going to happen in this crazy West."

Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups does have a prediction.

"There's such great parity that two [seed] and seven or three and six, everybody is going to be so close, as far as just the teams, not record wise, but just good teams," he said. "That's going to make for some great series."

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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