Playoff push primer: A look at the 4-team race for East’s last 3 postseason berths
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DETROIT – With the season down to its last handful-plus of games over the final 10 days, varying motivations could shape the final three playoff spots and determine the fates of the four teams – the Pistons included – battling to get a seat in this high-stakes game of musical chairs before the music stops.
Case in point: Brooklyn’s game with Boston on Saturday looked like a tough win – the first home game for the Nets since they beat the Pistons to revive their playoff hopes on March 11 ahead of a seven-game road trip – unless you knew that the Celtics, playing a back to back, would decide to rest both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford.
The Nets could benefit similarly over their next three games. On paper, they look murderous – home games with the top two teams in the East, Milwaukee and Toronto, followed by a road game at Milwaukee.
But the Bucks and Raptors are virtually locked in at 1-2 in the East. Milwaukee is four games ahead of Toronto in the loss column with six to play. Toronto is four games ahead of Philadelphia in the loss column with five to play. It would be no surprise if big names like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard skip a game or two or three ahead of the playoffs.
Here’s a snapshot of the schedule situation – and the circumstances underlying them – for the Pistons and their three nearest competitors in the race for the East’s 6-7-8 playoff spots:
The Pistons play three playoff teams next – a home and home with Indiana and a road game at Oklahoma City on Friday. The Pacers figure to be highly motivated. They know they’ll be playing Boston in the first round – the two teams, with identical 45-32 records, are locked in to the 4-5 spots – but home-court advantage is at stake.
OKC has wrapped up a playoff spot, currently in the No. 8 position. The motivation for the Thunder will be to overtake San Antonio – they have identical 44-32 records going into Sunday’s games – to avoid a first-round matchup with Golden State, though the Warriors currently are tied with Denver for the top spot at 51-24. (Denver plays at Golden State on Tuesday with the Warriors holding a 2-1 lead in the season series.) If the Pistons can win even one of those three games, they’re set up for a strong finish against three lottery teams (Charlotte, Memphis, New York), the first two of those at home.
The looming question for the Pistons: What’s Blake Griffin’s status? He missed Saturday’s win over Portland with left knee soreness. Dwane Casey said after the game that he was day to day. If the Pistons had a little more cushion, they’d lean toward holding Griffin out of Monday’s game at Indiana, meaning he’d have five days off before Wednesday’s rematch with the Pacers at Little Caesars Arena.
538.com odds to make the playoffs: >99 percent with a 42-40 record, meaning a 3-3 finish
After running the gauntlet of Milwaukee-Toronto-Milwaukee, the Nets close with a road game at Indiana and home against Miami. Indiana’s fate as either the No. 4 or 5 seed could be sealed by that point – the two games with the Pistons might go a long way toward that end – and the finale with Miami could be do-or-die for the Heat. Or not.
538.com odds to make the playoffs: 80 percent with a 41-41 record, meaning a 2-3 finish
The Heat have four of their six games left on the road. Is that a good thing for Miami? The Heat have been better on the road this season (20-17) than at home (18-21), the only team other than Chicago with such a distinction. The Heat start the home stretch with a home-and-home with Boston, take a road trip to Minnesota and Toronto, host Philadelphia and close at the Nets.
538.com odds to make the playoffs: 33 percent with a 40-42 record, meaning a 2-4 finish
The ace up Orlando’s sleeve is owning the tiebreaker advantage over Miami by virtue of a 3-1 edge in the season series, sealed last week when the Magic came back – despite playing a back to back – to win at Miami. Orlando also has – again, on paper – the easier closing schedule. It starts with a visit to Toronto, but then home games come against two lottery teams (New York and Atlanta) before closing with a road trip to Boston and Charlotte. How much Boston has at stake – will it already know if it will be home or on the road vs. Indiana in the first round? – in that penultimate game could be critical.
538.com odds to make the playoffs: 80 percent with a 41-41 record, meaning a 3-2 finish
Tiebreakers could play a big role in deciding not only which of the four teams gets left out but determining seeding. In the event of a two-way tie, the Pistons own the tiebreaker with Orlando (3-1 season series), lose it to Brooklyn (1-2 season series) and are in very favorable position to win a tiebreaker with Miami. They tied their season series 2-2, but the Pistons have a wide lead for the next tiebreaker determinant, record vs. conference opponents. The Pistons are 26-22 vs. Eastern Conference teams with four games left (Indiana, Indiana, Charlotte, New York). Miami is 22-25 with five games left (Boston, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Brooklyn). If the Pistons split their four conference games, they’ll clinch the tiebreaker with Miami. Winning even one of the two games ahead with Indiana would virtually clinch the tiebreaker over the Heat.
Three-way tiebreakers become more complicated, but the big worry for the Pistons would be a three-way tie involving Brooklyn and either Miami or Orlando. In that case, Miami or Orlando – assuming one is the champion of the Southeast Division, which Miami currently leads at 38-38 – would get precedence.