The Eastern Conference standings — which were already a knotted shoelace — tightened even more on Tuesday.
Entering Tuesday’s action, the Celtics, who enjoyed a second off-night in a row, sat in second place and held a half-game lead over both the Bucks and the 76ers. But the Bucks beat the Bulls comfortably, and the 76ers fended off a late rally by the Pacers, which evened all three teams up at 49-30 with three games remaining.
In the event of a three-team tie in the standings, an incredibly complicated list of tiebreakers begins to unfold. Here’s our best attempt to explain the landscape and what Celtics fans can expect.
The NBA playoffs scenarios
- Let’s assume the Celtics, Sixers and Bucks end the season with the same record. We start with winning percentage, which, of course, just means “Did you tie?” The answer here is yes. Simple enough so far.
- The second tiebreaker credits the division winners. The Bucks have clinched the Central Division, which leaves it to the Celtics and Sixers to figure out the winner of the Atlantic (the Heat, by the way, are a win or a Celtics loss away from clinching the No. 1 seed). The Celtics own the tiebreaker over the Sixers by virtue of their division record (9-7 vs. 6-9), so the Sixers would lose a three-way tie and drop down to fourth in the standings.
- That leaves the Celtics and Bucks, which means we are now dealing with a two-team tiebreaker. The first tiebreaker in a two-team scenario is head-to-head record. The Celtics could put themselves in pole position with a win over the Bucks on Thursday, which would both clinch the tiebreaker and help them in the standings. If they lose, the head-to-head this season will even up at 2-2.
- In some cases, the next tiebreaker would be division winning percentage, but that only applies if the teams are in the same division, so the Bucks’ 11-3 advantage over the 9-7 Celtics doesn’t actually matter.
- Instead, we go to conference record, which is incredibly close as well — the Celtics have a 32-18 record, while the Bucks are 31-18. If view the NBA’s standings before Wednesday’s games begin, conference record is the reason the order is currently 2) Celtics 3) Bucks 4) 76ers. Since the Celtics and Bucks are in the same conference, there’s a reasonable — but not definitive — chance Thursday’s game is for all the marbles.
- Hang on — we aren’t quite done making your head spin yet. The Celtics and Bucks could still finish with the same conference record if the Celtics finish 1-1 in their remaining games against East opponents (Bulls and Bucks) and the Bucks finish 2-1 (Celtics, Pistons and Cavaliers).
- In that scenario, the tiebreaker goes to record against conference playoff opponents. The Celtics are 14-9 against the top eight in the Eastern Conference while the Bucks are 13-10 with their head-to-head looming. In other words, if the Bucks beat the Celtics but the two teams finish with the same record, we could go even further down this road (this scenario could be disrupted in either direction by play-in opponents).
- The next scenario is record against Western Conference opponents. The Bucks and Celtics are both 7-9 against the top eight in the West, so once again, play-in opponents matter, but the rabbit hole could go even deeper.
- In the final scenario, the team with the best point differential would earn the higher seed. Finally, we can crown a winner definitively: The Celtics enjoy a comfortable margin in point differential over the Bucks.
- Thankfully, we shouldn’t have to go to a random drawing, which is the final step.
Here’s where things look a little tougher for the Celtics: They have the toughest remaining strength of schedule in the NBA, based on winning percentage. With games against the Bulls, Bucks, and Grizzlies, they certainly look like they could have the most difficult path forward.
Two things to keep in mind: First, the Bulls will be on the second night of a back-to-back when the Celtics play them on Wednesday. Second, the Grizzlies — who have clinched the No. 2 seed — will likely be resting their players for the final game of the season.
The Bucks have the 21st-toughest schedule remaining based on winning percentage, but games against the Celtics, Cavaliers and tough-minded Pistons won’t be easy.
The Sixers have the Raptors and Pistons remaining, but a game against the Pacers should be very winnable.
The standings remain far too close to call. A case could made that the Sixers should be slight favorites based on their game against the Pacers, but the last week of the season looks like it will be a wild ride.