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Schedule Analysis: Breaking down last-stretch playoff pushes

With the playoffs approaching, we take a look at how the remaining schedule could shape the postseason landscape.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

The banged-up defending-champion Lakers remain in the playoff picture, but which seed will they land in?

It’s time for the stretch run of what has been a unique and difficult season. The postseason is just around the corner and will begin with the new Play-In Tournament to determine the final two playoff teams in each conference.

One more quick explainer…

1. The top six teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. Teams 7-10 qualify for a three-game play-in tournament.

2. The seventh-place team will host the eighth-place team, and the winner of that game will be the No. 7 seed.

3. The ninth-place team will host the 10th-place team, and the loser of that game is eliminated.

4. The loser of the 7-8 game will then host the winner of the 9-10 game. The winner of that game will be the No. 8 seed.

Learn more about what the NBA Play-In Tournament is, how it works and when it happens.

In neither conference is there a clear delineation between the teams fighting for the top six seeds and those in the Play-In mix. In the East, only two games in the loss column separate the fourth-place Atlanta Hawks from the eighth-place Charlotte Hornets. And in the West, the Dallas Mavericks are simultaneously trying to take the No. 6 seed from the Portland Trail Blazers and trying to hold off the Memphis Grizzlies.

The good thing about this season is that in-conference, two-team tiebreakers are simple. Because every team plays three games against every other team in its conference, there will be a head-to-head winner in every season series. Tie-breakers involving more than two teams will start with division winners before going to cumulative head-to-head records between the tied teams and then divisional records (if all the teams are in the same division) or conference records.

With 32 days left in the season, here’s a breakdown of the different races in each conference and the remaining schedules for the teams involved…

* Rest advantage = Didn’t play the day before. Opponent is playing the second game of a back-to-back.
Rest disadvantage = Playing the second game of a back-to-back. Opponent didn’t play the day before.
Through Wednesday, teams are 134-104 (.563) in rest-advantage games, 78-48 at home and 56-56 on the road.

Eastern Conference breakdown

East remaining schedule breakdown

Team Game H R B2B RA | RDA OppPCT > .500 OppO OppD
Toronto 16 9 7 3 6 | 3 0.541 10 7 | 5 6 | 6
New York 16 9 7 3 3 | 1 0.533 9 7 | 1 5 | 3
Chicago 18 9 9 5 4 | 3 0.520 12 5 | 6 7 | 2
Brooklyn 17 7 10 4 3 | 4 0.510 8 7 | 2 4 | 4
Milwaukee 18 10 8 6 2 | 5 0.504 9 5 | 5 5 | 8
Indiana 18 11 7 5 2 | 4 0.489 8 6 | 7 4 | 8
Atlanta 17 12 5 5 4 | 2 0.489 8 4 | 8 7 | 7
Charlotte 18 11 7 5 2 | 3 0.486 10 6 | 8 5 | 7
Orlando 17 7 10 3 4 | 1 0.485 9 4 | 4 6 | 3
Boston 17 9 8 4 3 | 2 0.484 7 3 | 8 6 | 7
Philadelphia 17 10 7 4 1 | 3 0.480 7 7 | 7 6 | 6
Cleveland 18 10 8 5 5 | 4 0.477 7 5 | 7 3 | 8
Detroit 17 11 6 4 5 | 2 0.475 7 4 | 6 3 | 5
Washington 18 10 8 4 3 | 3 0.462 5 5 | 7 3 | 3
Miami 17 8 9 4 1 | 2 0.462 7 4 | 5 2 | 6

B2B = Back-to-backs
RA, RDA = Rest-advantage, Rest-disadvantage games
OppPCT = Cumulative opponent winning percentage
> .500 = Games vs. the 15 teams currently over .500
OppO = Games against teams currently in the top 10 & bottom 10 in offensive efficiency
OppD = Games against teams currently in the top 10 & bottom 10 in defensive efficiency

East Tier 1 – The Big Three

The 76ers have the easiest path remaining in the chase for No. 1 in the East.

1. Philadelphia: 38-17, 0.691
2. Brooklyn: 37-18, 0.673
3. Milwaukee: 34-20, 0.630

It’s a three-team race at the top of the Eastern Conference, and the Philadelphia 76ers are in the driver’s seat, thanks to their win over the shorthanded Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. It gave them both a one-game lead for first place and the head-to-head tie-breaker with Brooklyn, and Philly has the easiest remaining schedule of the top three teams.

No team is locked into its playoff seed more than the Milwaukee Bucks, who are 2 1/2 games behind the second-place Nets and 4 1/2 games ahead of the fourth-place Atlanta Hawks. But the Bucks aren’t out of the fight for one of the top two seeds just yet, because they still have four games remaining against the Sixers and Nets, and all four are in Milwaukee.

East 1-3, head to head

Team vs. BKN vs. MIL vs. PHI
Brooklyn xxx 1-0 1-2
Milwaukee 0-1 xxx 1-0
Philadelphia 2-1 0-1 xxx

Bold = Series complete.
Blue = Series won by the team to the left.
Red = Series won by the team above.

Remaining head-to-head meetings

  • April 22 – Philadelphia @ Milwaukee
  • April 24 – Philadelphia @ Milwaukee
  • May 2 – Brooklyn @ Milwaukee
  • May 4 – Brooklyn @ Milwaukee

Remaining schedule notes

  • The Nets have the East’s most road-heavy remaining schedule. After they host Charlotte on Friday, they’ll play 10 of their next 13 games on the road. Their two-game series in Milwaukee is the start of a five game trip that also includes games in Dallas and Denver. Brooklyn has defended much better at home (109.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, 10th best at home) than on the road (116.5, 27th).
  • The Bucks are tied with Memphis and San Antonio for the most back-to-backs (6) and rest-disadvantage games (5) remaining. Both of those counts include their game in Atlanta on Thursday, the start of a stretch of six straight games against teams with winning records. They’ll have a rest advantage for their first game against the Sixers, but the second will be the start of a stretch of eight games in 12 days that includes their two games against the Nets.
  • The Sixers‘ remaining schedule can be split between a tough April and an easier May. Six of their eight remaining April games, including visits from the Clippers and Suns in the next six days, are against teams with winning records. Only one of their nine May games (at Miami on May 13) is against a team currently over .500.

East Tier 2 – Avoiding the Play-In

4. Atlanta: 30-25, 0.630
5. Boston: 29-26, 0.527
6. New York: 29-27, 0.518
7. Miami: 28-27, 0.509

The battle for the No. 4, 5 and 6 seeds remains wide open. With the East’s second best record (16-5) since March 1, the Atlanta Hawks are in control. But the fifth-place Boston Celtics have won six of their last seven, while the fifth-place New York Knicks have won four straight.

The Miami Heat are 1-2 on their current, four-game trip, but have a more favorable schedule over the next couple of weeks. The Charlotte Hornets were in the heart of this tier just a week ago, but have dropped three straight and are missing two starters long-term.

East 4-7, head to head

Team vs. ATL vs. BOS vs. MIA vs. NYK
Atlanta xxx 2-1 1-1 0-2
Boston 1-2 xxx 1-0 1-1
Miami 1-1 0-1 xxx 3-0
New York 2-0 1-1 0-3 xxx

Bold = Series complete.
Blue = Series won by the team to the left.
Red = Series won by the team above.

Remaining head-to-head meetings

  • April 21 – Atlanta @ New York
  • April 23 – Miami @ Atlanta
  • May 9 – Miami @ Boston
  • May 11 – Miami @ Boston
  • May 16 – Boston @ New York

Remaining schedule notes

  • The Hawks have the league’s most home-heavy remaining schedule, with 12 of their 17 games at State Farm Arena. They’ve already played their final game outside the Eastern time zone.
  • The Celtics have the league’s easiest remaining schedule in regard to opposing offenses, with eight games against teams that rank in the bottom 10 on that end of the floor. Of course, that includes all three of their games within this tier, which all come in the last eight days of the season.
  • The Heat have the East’s easiest remaining schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage. They also have just two games remaining (fewest in the league) against teams that rank in the top 10 defensively. But all three of their remaining games within this group are on the road.
  • The Knicks have the East’s second toughest remaining schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage. But they’re tied for the fewest remaining rest-disadvantage games (1) and have both of their remaining games within this group at home. The have a big back-to-back against the Hornets and Hawks next Tuesday and Wednesday, the second and third games of a six-game homestand.

East Tier 3 – Anybody want the final Play-In spot?

8. Charlotte: 27-27, 0.500
9. Indiana: 26-28, 0.481
10. Chicago: 22-32, 0.407
11. Toronto: 22-34, 0.393

The Charlotte Hornets are just a half game behind the seventh-place Heat and certainly have the opportunity to climb back into Tier 2, with five games remaining against that group: two each against the Knicks and Celtics and a visit from the Heat on May 2. But, missing two of their best players, the Hornets have dropped three straight, including a home game against Cleveland on Wednesday. So they’re just a game up on the seventh-place Pacers (who have won five of their last seven) in what we could call Tier 2.5. Charlotte has the tie-breaker, having won the season series.

The Chicago Bulls have held onto 10th place by default. The Bulls have lost 10 of their last 13 games and are still two games in the loss column ahead of the 11th-place Toronto Raptors. Chicago clinched the season series with Toronto last week, but they’re now tied in the win column and the two teams will meet again in Chicago on May 13.

Do we dare include the Washington Wizards (21-33) and Cleveland Cavaliers (20-34) in this group? Both won on Wednesday to climb within a game and two games of the Bulls, respectively. Both teams have to take advantage of the next week and a half. The Wizards play their next seven games against teams that are currently under .500 (with two meetings against the reeling Thunder), while the Cavs have two head-to-head matchups with the Bulls in the next seven days.

East 8-11, head to head

Team vs. CHA vs. CHI vs. IND vs. TOR
Charlotte xxx 0-1 2-1 1-2
Chicago 1-0 xxx 2-1 2-0
Indiana 1-2 1-2 xxx 1-1
Toronto 2-1 0-2 1-1 xxx

Bold = Series complete.
Blue = Series won by the team to the left.
Red = Series won by the team above.

Remaining head-to-head meetings

  • April 22 – Charlotte @ Chicago
  • May 6 – Chicago @ Charlotte
  • May 13 – Toronto @ Chicago
  • May 16 – Indiana @ Toronto

Remaining schedule notes

  • The Hornets‘ remaining schedule is home-heavy. After they play three of their next four on the road (with big games in New York and Chicago next week), they’ll play 10 of their next 12 at Spectrum Center.
  • The Bulls‘ final game against the Western Conference is Friday, when they host the Memphis Grizzlies. Their final 17 are all within the East, with only four of those 17 – two against Cleveland and one each against Detroit and Toronto – against the five teams below them in the East standings.
  • The Pacers‘ remaining schedule is home-heavy (11 of 18 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse), but they don’t have any homestands of more than three games. They finish their season with a stretch of eight games in 12 days, which includes a three-game homestand with visits from the Sixers, Bucks and Lakers.
  • The Raptors have the East’s toughest remaining schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage, but they have a league-high five rest-advantage games remaining, and the last of those is their game against the Pacers on the last game of the season. They’re 4-2 in rest-advantage games (with wins over the Mavs and Nuggets, along with a 53-point win over the Warriors) thus far.

Western Conference breakdown

West remaining schedule breakdown

Team Game H R B2B RA | RDA OppPCT > .500 OppO OppD
Houston 17 9 8 4 3 | 1 0.583 14 10 | 5 11 | 3
San Antonio 19 7 12 6 3 | 3 0.572 14 10 | 5 10 | 6
Portland 18 8 10 5 3 | 4 0.551 12 7 | 2 7 | 2
Phoenix 18 6 12 4 5 | 3 0.546 11 6 | 5 8 | 4
L.A. Lakers 17 9 8 4 4 | 4 0.527 10 9 | 4 5 | 6
New Orleans 17 6 11 3 2 | 2 0.511 8 4 | 8 8 | 5
Sacramento 17 8 9 5 2 | 3 0.503 9 6 | 6 7 | 5
Minnesota 16 8 8 3 0 | 2 0.503 9 6 | 6 7 | 5
Oklahoma City 17 7 10 4 1 | 4 0.496 5 4 | 5 6 | 6
Denver 17 7 10 4 3 | 3 0.488 9 6 | 6 7 | 7
Memphis 19 7 12 6 4 | 4 0.480 9 9 | 6 4 | 10
Golden State 17 9 8 3 1 | 1 0.478 7 7 | 6 4 | 9
L.A. Clippers 15 6 9 2 0 | 2 0.475 7 4 | 5 5 | 6
Utah 17 8 9 3 1 | 2 0.451 5 3 | 6 4 | 8
Dallas 18 11 7 5 5 | 5 0.441 6 2 | 9 6 | 7

B2B = Back-to-backs
RA, RDA = Rest-advantage, Rest-disadvantage games
OppPCT = Cumulative opponent winning percentage
> .500 = Games vs. the 15 teams currently over .500
OppO = Games against teams currently in the top 10 & bottom 10 in offensive efficiency
OppD = Games against teams currently in the top 10 & bottom 10 in defensive efficiency

West Tier 1 – Suns make it a race

The Suns and Jazz are still in a too-close-to-call chase for No. 1 in the West.

1. Utah: 41-14, 0.745
2. Phoenix: 39-15, 0.722
3. LA Clippers: 39-18, 0.684

The Utah Jazz have been at the top of the Western Conference for most of the season, but the Phoenix Suns have been hanging around and clinched the season series with an overtime victory last week. Trailing by just one game in the loss column with one more meeting with the Jazz, the Suns control their own destiny for the No. 1 seed.

The LA Clippers have separated themselves from the teams below them by winning 13 of their last 15 games. Taking one of the top two seeds from Utah or Phoenix will be tough, but the Clips drew even with the Suns in the win column with their comeback victory (sans Paul George and Kawhi Leonard) in Detroit on Wednesday, have already clinched the season series, and get one more chance at Phoenix later this month.

These are three of the league’s four teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

West 1-3, head to head

Team vs. LAC vs. PHX vs. UTA
LA Clippers xxx 2-0 1-2
Phoenix 0-2 xxx 2-0
Utah 2-1 0-2 xxx

Bold = Series complete.
Blue = Series won by the team to the left.
Red = Series won by the team above.

Remaining head-to-head meetings

  • April 28 – Clippers @ Phoenix
  • April 30 – Utah @ Phoenix

Remaining schedule notes

  • The Clippers are the only team with only 15 games remaining. With that, they have four two-day breaks and a league-low two back-to-backs left on their schedule. But they’re also the only team that doesn’t have any more games against teams on the second night of a back-to-back. Both teams will be rested when they play in Phoenix on April 28.
  • The Suns have, by a healthy margin, the toughest remaining schedule within this group. They also have the league’s most road-heavy remaining schedule, with 12 of their 18 games on the road. On Monday, they begin a five-game trip in which they’ll face five of the top six teams in the East, including the Bucks, Sixers and Nets. Only the Jazz (10.6) and Warriors (8.9) have bigger home-road differentials in regard to point differential per 100 possessions than the Suns, who have been 5.6 per 100 better at home (+9.7) than they have been on the road (+4.1).
  • Dallas has a slightly easier remaining schedule than the Jazz in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage, but Utah is tied (with Oklahoma City and Washington) for the fewest games remaining (5) against the 15 teams currently over .500. And two of those five are Saturday and Monday (in L.A.) against the (still?) shorthanded Lakers.

West Tier 2 – Where do the Lakers land?

4. Denver: 35-20, 0.636
5. L.A. Lakers: 34-21, 0.618
6. Portland: 31-23, 0.574
7. Dallas: 30-24, 0.556
8. Memphis: 27-26, 0.509

The teams in Tier 1 would probably like to know where the defending champs will land in the standings. But it’s way too early to have a firm grasp on just how the rest of the season will play out in Tier 2, where the Denver Nuggets have lost Jamal Murray for the rest of the season.

The Portland Trail Blazers have seemingly been punching above their weight class. With Damian Lillard having led them to a 21-8 record in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, the Blazers are 31-23 with a negative point differential and the league’s 29th-ranked defense.

The Dallas Mavericks got a huge and miraculous win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday to draw within a game of the idle Blazers. The Grizzlies are tied in the win column with the ninth-place Golden State Warriors, but remain in this tier, because they’re two games up in the loss column with the .500 mark separating the two.

There are still 12 games remaining within this tier, with the Grizzlies and/or Blazers involved in nine of the 12. And three of those nine are head-to-head meetings (all in a six-day span) between the two teams that faced off in the play-in game last year.

West 4-8, head to head

Team vs. DAL vs. DEN vs. LAL vs. MEM vs. POR
Dallas xxx 2-1 0-1 2-0 1-2
Denver 1-2 xxx 1-1 1-0 1-0
L.A. Lakers 1-0 1-1 xxx 3-0 1-1
Memphis 0-2 0-1 0-3 xxx 0-0
Portland 2-1 0-1 1-1 0-0 xxx

Bold = Series complete.
Blue = Series won by the team to the left.
Red = Series won by the team above.

Remaining head-to-head meetings

  • April 19 – Memphis @ Denver
  • April 21 – Denver @ Portland
  • April 22 – Lakers @ Dallas
  • April 23 – Memphis @ Portland
  • April 24 – Lakers @ Dallas
  • April 25 – Memphis @ Portland
  • April 26 – Memphis @ Denver
  • April 28 – Portland @ Memphis
  • May 3 – Denver @ Lakers
  • May 7 – Lakers @ Portland
  • May 11 – Dallas @ Memphis
  • May 16 – Denver @ Portland

Remaining schedule notes

  • The Mavs have both the league’s easiest remaining schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage and the West’s most home-heavy remaining schedule, with 11 of their final 18 games at American Airlines Center. Their longest homestand of the second-half schedule (five games over nine days) begins Friday with a visit from the Knicks and concludes with a two-game series against the Lakers. Of course, the Mavs are one of nine teams with a better road record (17-12) than home record (13-12).
  • The Nuggets will play seven of their final 10 games on the road, with the first three of those road games against the Clippers (May 1), Lakers (May 3) and Jazz (May 7). The last is in Portland on the final day of the season.
  • The Grizzlies and Spurs had the busiest second-half schedules (40 games over 68 days), and still have some catching up to do. Both teams have 19 games over the final 32 days of the season, with six back-to-backs. The Grizzlies’ longest road trip of the season (seven games over 11 days) begins Friday in Chicago with the final six games coming against the Bucks, Nuggets (x2), Clippers and Blazers (x2). After they return home from that trip and play the Blazers again, only nine of their final 11 games will be against teams that are currently over .500.
  • The Blazers have the toughest remaining schedule within this tier, with 12 of their final 18 games against teams that currently have winning records and four of the other six against teams – San Antonio (x2), Charlotte and Indiana – that are at or within two games of .500. From April 27 – May 13, the Blazers are playing 11 games in 17 days, with three overlapping stretches of five in seven.

West Tier 3 – Three teams for two Play-In spots

With an eight-game losing streak (that includes losses to the Timberwolves, Pistons and Wizards), the Sacramento Kings appear to be on their way toward tying the record for the longest playoff drought in NBA history (15 seasons). That leaves three teams fighting for the final two play-in spots in the West.

Both the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs were on a bad slide just a week ago. But the Warriors have won three straight behind some huge games from Stephen Curry to regain their footing. The Spurs got a pair of wins in Dallas and Orlando before losing in Toronto on Wednesday. And both teams are within a game of the eight-place Grizzlies.

But the New Orleans Pelicans have remained within striking distance, with an opportunity to win both tie-breakers. The Warriors and Pelicans still have all three head-to-head meetings remaining on their schedule. They’ll have a two-game series in New Orleans on May 3 and 4, and the Pelicans will be in San Francisco at the end of a five-game trip in May 14.

West 9-11, head to head

Team vs. GSW vs. NOP vs. SAS
Golden State xxx 0-0 2-1
New Orleans 0-0 xxx 1-1
San Antonio 1-2 1-1 xxx

Bold = Series complete.
Blue = Series won by the team to the left.
Red = Series won by the team above.

Remaining head-to-head meetings

  • April 24 – San Antonio @ New Orleans
  • May 3 – Golden State @ New Orleans
  • May 4 – Golden State @ New Orleans
  • May 14 – New Orleans @ Golden State

Remaining schedule notes

  • The Warriors have four games remaining on a five-game trip. After that, they’ll be done with the Eastern Conference and will play nine of their final 13 games at home. They have the league’s second biggest home-road differential, both in regard to winning percentage (17-10 vs. 10-18) and point differential per 100 possessions (+3.8 vs. -5.1).
  • The Pelicans are tied (with the Suns and Clippers) for the fewest home games remaining (6). Three of the six are against these two teams they’re trying to catch, and the other three are against the Nets, Clippers and Lakers. The back-to-back against the Warriors is the end of a stretch of five games in seven days that starts in Denver.
  • The Spurs don’t just (with the Grizzlies – see above) have the busiest remaining schedule. It’s the second most difficult in regard to average opponent strength, with 14 of their 19 games against teams that currently have winning records. Two of the other five are on the road against the Pacers and Pelicans. Eleven of their final 12 games are against teams currently over .500, and they’re playing 10 games (with four back-to-backs) over the final 15 days of the season.

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive 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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