Seeding the NBA Eastern Conference

It’s March and unless you’re a college basketball over the next month that means the NBA playoffs are a scant five weeks away. For the Raptors, that means considering the path they’re set to take in the post-season, who they’ll play, and what matchups are likely to create an easier path to what seems like an inevitable Final Boss in the Milwaukee Bucks for the eastern crown.

At the moment, the Raptors are in a virtual dead heat with the Celtics to claim the second seed, but they gained a significant leg up with the Celtics shocking last-second loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday night. The Celtics held the lead and the ball with less than 10 seconds left,  when Kemba Walker foolishly allowed himself to get trapped in the corner, leading Thunder guard Dennis Schroder to steal the ball and hit the game-winning layup. 

The Raptors knocked off the Sacramento Kings that same evening by a single basket – a coinflip for either of those games and the race would have been all that much closer. Still, the Raptors have not sealed their position as the number two seed, and they have a critical game against Boston on March 20th, which could well be the deciding game on the matter. Celtics lead the season series 2-1, if they win again they will hold the tiebreaker over Toronto. 

The full breakdown for NBA tiebreaker rules are as follows:

  1. Better record in head-to-head games
  2. Division winner (this criterion is applied regardless of whether the tied teams are in the same division)
  3. Higher winning percentage within division (if teams are in the same division)
  4. Higher winning percentage in conference games
  5. Higher winning percentage against playoff teams in own conference
  6. Higher winning percentage against playoff teams in opposite conference
  7. Higher point differential between points scored and points allowed

 

What matters next is who has the best Division winning record, currently 8-4 in Toronto’s favour. It *probably* won’t come to that, because overall record is the primary determinant of playoff seeding – but a win against the Celtics give Toronto added insurance against a last-minute losing streak.

 

The Raptors have an unusual number of games remaining against the other east contenders, which might inform their preferred path through the playoffs. In addition to the game against Boston, they have two games remaining against the Bucks and one each with the Sixers and the Heat. unfortunately for the Raptors, they don’t have any obvious games at the tail end of their schedule that will feature teams likely to be resting players – their final 2 games are against the Magic and the Heat, both of whom may need a win to secure their desired seeding to end the year.

So how do the schedules for the East contenders look now? You’ll note I removed the Bucks because they are a lock for the first seed.

Celtics (42-21) Games remaining: 19 (9 Home, 10 Away) vs. +.500: 7, vs. East: 16

Raptors (45-18) Games remaining: 19 (9 Home, 10 Away) vs. +.500: 9, vs. East: 12

Sixers (38-26) Games remaining: 18 (11 Home, 7 Away) vs. +.500: 4, vs. East: 11

Heat 41-23) Games remaining: 18 (10 Home, 8 Away) vs. +.500: 8, vs. East: 15

Pacers (39-25) Games remaining: 18 (10 Home, 8 Away) vs. +.500: 8, vs. East: 11

Magic (29-35) Games remaining: 18 (10 Home, 8 Away) vs. +.500: 6, vs. East: 15

Nets (29-34) Games remaining: 19 (9 Home, 10 Away) vs. +.500: 9, vs. East: 11

 

Assuming they secure the second seed, Toronto will play one of Orlando or Brooklyn. Of the two, the Raptors should prefer to play the Nets. The Nets have had a deeply uneven season, mired with public controversy and murmurings of poor morale. Those murmurs were given form when they suddenly decided to fire their very successful coach Kenny Atkinson. The interim coach is not of Atkinson’s caliber and his political capital is limited, the Raptors would likely beat the Nets at the best of times, but they are decidedly limping into the playoffs.

But if the Raptors should slip past the Celtics and fall to 3rd however, the going gets a lot tougher. It would mean a potential first-round series with the Sixers, Pacers, or Heat. While Toronto would be favoured in any series of the three, they each present distinct challenges that Brooklyn does not.

Though similarly dysfunctional, the Sixers have the highest pound for pound talent upside of any team in the East – it’s entirely conceivable that they figure things out just in time for the playoffs. if you’re a Raptors fan, you remember all too well how bruising and difficult the Sixers series was last year. Though they’ve lost Jimmy Butler, a long series against the Sixers would be an extremely taxing start to the post-season for the Raps.

 

The Heat are the most dangerous of the three, and in some ways mirror the structure of Torontos run with Kawhi Leonard last year. They have a dynamic playmaking center, a legitimate closer, shooting all over the floor, a propensity for zone defenses, and an excellent head coach.

 

The Pacers, last but not least, would be no cakewalk either. They’re still rounding to form with the return of Victor Oladipo, but if he reaches his potential they have 3 All-Star caliber players in him, Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon.

Falling to third would also be a disaster because it means meeting the Bucks a round earlier than necessary. Every team that plays the Bucks will be considerable underdogs, but the Raptors will hope to put off that series as long as possible on the off chance that a team like the Sixers manages a shock upset.

Authors note: All stats as far as tiebreakers current as of March 8th

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