Playoff race breakdown: Next week critical for seeds No. 4-8 in Eastern Conference
The Eastern Conference is having its third best season of the last 19 years. It has a losing record vs. the Western Conference for the 19th time in those 19 seasons, but at 163-185 against the West through Wednesday’s games, the East has been relatively competitive in a season in which we thought it might be historically bad.
Let’s remember that last summer, the East lost four 2017 All-Stars — Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap — to the Western Conference. The only ’17 All-Star that went in the other direction — Gordon Hayward – has played five minutes this season.
While the Cleveland Cavaliers have taken a step backward, other East teams have improved. The Philadelphia 76ers have had the league’s second biggest jump in winning percentage and its biggest jump in point differential per 100 possessions. The Indiana Pacers, meanwhile, have been the East’s biggest surprise and, despite the loss of George, are on pace to win more games than they did last season.
Amazingly, those two teams are in the mix for a top-four seed in the East. And they’re joined by the Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat in a scrum for seeds No. 4-8, five teams within three games in the loss column. The East playoffs could be a lot more interesting than they were last season, but there’s still a lot to be determined between now and April 14 (the first day of the playoffs). And with a lot of head-to-head matchups between teams 4-8 in the next six days, it’s a good time to see where they stand and what lies ahead.
Of course, the Cavs are far from clinching the No. 3 seed. They have the same number of wins (36) as the fourth-place Wizards, they haven’t figured out their defensive issues since making big changes to their roster at the deadline, and they have the sixth best point differential in the East.
But, rather than spread this conversation too thin, we’ll focus on Washington, Indiana, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Miami with the understanding that those four teams aren’t necessarily locked into seeds No. 4-8.
None of those five teams have a discrepancy between their record and their point differential quite as big as the Cavs (36-24 with a point differential of a 31-29 team). But the Bucks and Heat both have inflated records when comparing them with their point differential.
Milwaukee is 33-28 and Miami is 32-29. But both teams have been outscored this season and each has point differential of a team that’s 29-32. The Sixers are on the other side of the spectrum, in sixth place with the conference’s third best per-game point differential (that of a team with two more wins than they actually have).
If you take their records (the games they’ve won so far) and use their point differentials to project how they’ll do over the final six weeks of the season (ignoring strength of schedule), these five teams would stay in the order they’re in — with the following records:
- Washington: 47-35
- Indiana: 46-36
- Philadelphia: 45-37
- Milwaukee: 43-39
- Miami: 42-40
Using the same methodology, Cleveland would finish 47-35, tied with Washington for third place in the East. The Cavs lead the season series, 2-1, with one more game (April 5) in Cleveland.
Of these five teams, the Sixers had the best February, going 8-3 and outscoring their opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions, the league’s fifth best mark last month. And that was with eight of their 11 February games coming against teams that currently have winning records.
Since Jan. 1, the Sixers are *10-6 in games against the other 17 teams that are currently over .500, and those 10 “quality” wins are more than every other team except Houston (13-3) and Golden State (12-6) over these last two months. Philadelphia also ranks second defensively since Jan. 1.
* If you’ve been wondering why the Sixers have been ranked so high in the Power Rankings the last few weeks, this is the biggest reason.
The Wizards are 10-4 since losing John Wall to a knee injury, with the league’s seventh best offense (and its highest assist rate) over that stretch. Six of the 10 wins – including victories over the Pacers, Sixers and Bucks – have been against teams with winning records.
So the Sixers and Wizards enter March with some momentum. For the others, last few weeks have been a mixed bag.
The Pacers won nine of their last 12 games before the All-Star break, and their win in Boston on Feb. 9 was one of their best wins of the season. But Indiana ended February with losses to two of the worst teams in the league, losing in Dallas on Monday and in Atlanta on Wednesday. And now (see below), their schedule is going to get much tougher.
Milwaukee started 10-3 under interim coach Joe Prunty, and that stretch concluded with a win in Toronto. But it was mostly against a soft schedule, and the Bucks have now lost three straight games, dropping to 2-6 under Prunty against teams that still have playoff hopes (no worse than Detroit).
The Heat had the roughest February of the group and lost eight of nine games between Jan. 31 and Feb. 23. But those eight losses were by a total of just 28 points and they’ve now won two straight, finishing the month with an important win over the Sixers.
The Pacers have the toughest remaining schedule in the East in regard to opponent strength, with 16 of their 21 games against teams that are currently over .500. They have won six of their last 10 against that group, with road wins in Utah (before the Jazz’s 11-game winning streak), San Antonio and Boston over the last month before the break.
The Wizards have the East’s third toughest remaining schedule in regard to opponent strength and have five remaining games where they’ll be at a *disadvantage in regard to rest. But among East teams, only Miami (8) has fewer road games than the Wizards (9).
* They’ll be playing the second game of a back-to-back against an opponent that didn’t play the day before. Over the last two seasons, home teams are 285-154 (.649) with a rest advantage and road teams are 83-81 (.506) with a rest advantage.
The Bucks are in the middle of the pack in the East in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage (.491) over their remaining schedule. They have a league-high six remaining games with a rest advantage and are 5-2 in rest-advantage games so far this season. One of those remaining ones is the last game of the season in Philadelphia.
The Heat have the East’s third easiest schedule in regard to opponent strength, with more games remaining against the 12 teams with losing records (11) than they do against the 18 teams with winning records (10). They also have the East’s most home-heavy remaining schedule, with 13 of their 21 games at AmericanAirlines Arena, though home vs. road hasn’t made a huge difference for them (see below).
The Sixers have the league’s easiest remaining schedule in regard to opponent strength, with seven more games against teams with losing records (15) than against teams with winning records (8). The next biggest discrepancy in that direction is just three (Chicago: 9 and 12).
The 23 games the Sixers have left are the most for any team in the league. So they have five back-to-backs left on their schedule. But only one of their 23 games is against a team that currently ranks in the top 10 defensively. They have a league-high 11 games remaining against bottom-10 defenses.
So the remaining schedule favors Miami and Philadelphia.
Three of the 10 season series between these five teams are complete. Two of them —Milwaukee vs. Washington and Philadelphia vs. Washington — ended in 2-2 ties, and the only head-to-head tiebreaker that we know right now is Miami over Milwaukee, with the Heat having swept the season series, 3-0.
So there’s still a lot to be determined in terms of tiebreakers within this group. But we will have at least two more definitive head-to-head winners (Indiana vs. Philadelphia and Indiana vs. Washington), because those are three-game season series. We’ll know both of those by March 17.
Here are the remaining head-to-head games between these five teams, including five in the first six days in March…
- March 2 – Indiana @ Milwaukee
- March 4 – Indiana @ Washington
- March 4 – Milwaukee @ Philadelphia
- March 5 – Milwaukee @ Indiana
- March 6 – Miami @ Washington (RA)
- March 8 – Philadelphia @ Miami
- March 10 – Washington @ Miami (RA)
- March 13 – Indiana @ Philadelphia
- March 17 – Indiana @ Washington
- March 25 – Miami @ Indiana
- April 11 – Milwaukee (RA) @ Philadelphia
(RA) – Rest advantage
If there’s a tie between more than two teams, the first tiebreaker is division winner vs. non-division winner. That’s also the next tiebreaker in a two-way tie where the teams split the season series. So Washington has an edge in that regard, though winning their division isn’t yet out of the question for Indiana or Miami.
The Pacers would probably have a division-record edge over the Bucks if they split their season series, and the same goes for the Heat over the Wizards.
Conference record is the next tiebreaker for teams that aren’t in the same division, putting Milwaukee in a tough spot.
For whom it matters most
If we assume that these five teams will finish No. 4-8 in the East, two of them will play each other, while the other three will get the Raptors, Celtics and Cavs in the first round.
It’s worth noting that LeBron James’ teams have swept their last five first-round series. It’s also worth noting that head-to-head record in the regular season doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the playoffs. Also, as noted last week, being a great home team in the regular season doesn’t necessarily lead to home dominance in the postseason.
Still, while the Sixers are 6-5 against the other four teams in this group, they’re 2-8 against Toronto (1-3), Boston (1-3) and Cleveland (0-2). They might benefit most from finishing fourth of fifth.
At 21-11 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers have been the best home team within the group. The Wizards are the only one of the five with a winning record (18-14) on the road.
The Heat have been only 0.3 points per 100 possessions better at home (minus-0.5) than on the road (minus-0.8). Eighteen of their last 19 games have been within five points in the last five minutes, and it doesn’t seem to matter where they play or who they’re playing.
The Sixers have been 7.9 points per 100 possessions better at home (plus-6.5) than on the road (minus-1.4). That’s the fourth biggest home-road NetRtg differential in the league, trailing only the marks of Denver, New York and Detroit. Philly is 12-0 at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018 (their Jan. 11 “home” loss to Boston took place in London).
The Sixers, trending in the right direction and with an easy remaining schedule, have a shot at that 4 seed. It would be a great story given their last five years, and it would mean a lot in regard to their chances of advancing to the conference semifinals.
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