Monday, May 23, 2022

NBA playoffs: Who will win race for Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed? Celtics, Bucks look like favorites

Six different Eastern Conference teams have held sole control of the No. 1 seed at some point this season. Four of them have since late January. One of the teams that is currently tied for the top spot has never held it for themselves… but the teams currently seeded No. 9 and No. 12 have both done so for meaningful stretches. Now, with mere weeks remaining in the regular season, the race for home-court advantage took its craziest turn yet.

The Miami Heat lost four games in a row over the past week. Before last Monday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, they were heavily favored to finish No. 1. By Sunday, their fourth straight loss gave them a total of 28, one behind Philadelphia and Milwaukee with 27. Then the Bucks lost on Saturday to the Grizzlies and the 76ers lost Sunday to the Suns. Suddenly, all three teams had 28 losses. So did the surging Boston Celtics, who themselves lost their 24th game on Jan. 21. They’ve lost only four times since. Now, the four Eastern Conference powerhouses are deadlocked in the loss column. Boston and Miami have seven games remaining. Milwaukee and Philadelphia have eight.

Further complicating matters? One of those four teams might be underdogs in the first round… and we have no idea which one. The preseason favorites from Brooklyn are currently sitting at No. 9 right now, but will likely wind up at either No. 7 or No. 8 once the play-in dust settles. Some teams are going to be far more eager to face them than others. So with the home stretch at hand, let’s dig into each of the four teams currently battling for the top spot. How easy will their paths to home-court advantage be, and how badly do they even want it?

Boston Celtics

How clear is their path? Most analytic models favor Boston to earn the top seed at this stage. FiveThirtyEight, for example, pegs the Celtics as the Eastern Conference’s lone 52-win team with the Bucks, Sixers and Heat tied at 51 apiece. This model is responding to how Boston has played lately less than the path in front of them. The Celtics aren’t just 24-4 in their last 28 games. They are absolutely decimating their opponents. The NBA has tracked net rating since the 1996-97 season. In that time, the best full-season mark any team has ever achieved belongs to the 1996-97 Bulls at plus-11.8. The Celtics are at plus-16.4 since Jan. 22.

But if they want the No. 1 seed, they’re going to have to earn it. The Celtics have the NBA’s third-hardest remaining schedule. That includes a home date with the Heat on Wednesday and a trip to Milwaukee on April 7 that might decide the whole thing. It isn’t clear how healthy they’ll be for those games either. Robert Williams III will have his knee scanned on Monday after suffering an injury Sunday, but Boston coach Imo Udoka said that Williams was in “quite a bit of pain.” Without him, Boston’s fearsome defense looks a bit more beatable. The Celtics are playing the best basketball in the East, and that might be enough to carry them forward, but they still probably have the toughest task in front of them of the four contenders.

How badly do they want it? Seeding probably doesn’t mean all that much to Boston, all things considered. Boston’s preposterous net rating during this streak has been even better on the road (plus-17.6), and from a matchup perspective, they are better equipped to face Brooklyn than anyone else in the Eastern Conference. Most teams don’t have a single adequate defender for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Boston has multiple players who can handle both. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have proven up to the task of defending Durant. Marcus Smart and Derrick White are a perfect combination for Irving. The Celtics should be just fine no matter where they land.

Miami Heat

How clear is their path? If the Heat can just pull themselves together, they still have a pretty good chance at this thing. Only Philadelphia has an easier schedule among the East’s top four down the stretch, and amazingly, the Heat are probably healthier than they’ve been all season. Their Wednesday date with Boston is an extremely precarious matchup for them, but any lingering doubt they might have can be extinguished with a palette cleanser at home against the Kings Monday.

Of course, we have no idea what is going in Miami right now. Tensions appear to be running thin after an altercation between Jimmy Butler, Udonis Haslem and Erik Spoelstra. These problems might not be fixable in the time it would take for Miami to score home-court advantage. It’s there for the taking, but Miami might not be especially motivated to grab it.

How badly do they want it? A team as proud as the Heat would never admit it, but Miami should want no part of Brooklyn in the first round. The Heat have the NBA’s 26th-ranked clutch offense, reflecting half-court issues they are going to have in the slower postseason. They are extremely dependent on Tyler Herro to help generate late-game baskets, but as Philadelphia proved last week, the downside to that is that Herro is an incredibly vulnerable defender. Irving and Durant would hunt him off of the floor. Jimmy Butler probably can’t match buckets with two scorers like Brooklyn’s, who are about as immune to Miami’s stellar defense as any two offensive players can be by virtue of Durant’s size and Irving’s ball-handling. A matchup with the Raptors, Bulls or Cavaliers wouldn’t exactly be easy, but it would be far more palatable than one with the Nets

Milwaukee Bucks

How clear is their path? Milwaukee’s upcoming slate is nearly as difficult as Boston’s. They have a matchup with the Celtics coming in April as well as road games in Brooklyn and Philadelphia this week. That gives them the sixth-hardest remaining schedule overall, and with Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton slowly getting reintegrated back into the rotation, the Bucks could be forgiven for prioritizing getting their roster up to speed over winning games. 

Yet the Bucks are 10-3 in their last 13, and when they’ve had all three of their stars, they’ve looked as strong as ever. That trio is outscoring opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions when it has been on the floor together, and now that the Bucks are regaining their depth, there’s no reason to believe that they can’t stay hot if they want to. If they can take care of business at home against Boston in April, they’re probably the favorites at this stage to earn the No. 1 seed. They have the highest floor of all four contenders.

How badly do they want it? It’s easy to forget this, but last year’s Bucks really relied on their home court to win in the postseason. Milwaukee lost seven games in the 2021 playoffs. Six were on the road. It’s anecdotal, but it the old adage that role players are better at home should seemingly make home-court a priority for Milwaukee, specifically, because their roster is so heavily reliant on role players making 3’s around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even if the Bucks played a compromised version of the Nets a year ago, their victory likely gave them a measure of confidence against Brooklyn that would carry over into a playoff rematch. The Bucks probably want the No. 1 seed as much as any of their competitors. It’s the best possible position for them to launch their championship defense.

Philadelphia 76ers

How clear is their path? The 76ers play the Bucks on Monday in what will easily be their biggest game left of the regular season. After that? It’s smooth sailing. They have no games left against a top-five seed in either conference after the Bucks, and half of their remaining contests will be with the Pistons and Pacers. Predicting tiebreakers at this point would be foolish. There are too many iterations of this four-way standoff to get into how everyone compares to one another. But there’s a 7-1 run on the table for the Sixers if they go for it.

How badly do they want it? They just haven’t exactly gone for it lately. Both Joel Embiid and James Harden have missed games due to injury management. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a sensible strategy with the playoffs approaching. But it does suggest that seeding isn’t a top priority for Philadelphia right now. They likely went into last week’s matchup with the Heat expecting to be defeated only to be surprised when Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton stole a victory right out from under Miami.

The 76ers probably weren’t hoping to lose that game, but winning it wasn’t exactly a positive, either. Philadelphia wants nothing to do with the Nets. Forget about the personal vendetta Irving and Durant have against Harden and just think of the matchups. Matisse Thybulle, already more of a team-defender than a man-defender, can only cover one of them. Who takes the other? Can Tobias Harris do anything to slow down Durant? Would Danny Green, in his mid-30s, be remotely capable of staying in front of Irving? Thybulle’s presence on the floor doesn’t do the offense any favors either. It’s no slam dunk that he’s playing starter-minutes. In truth, avoiding the Nets probably means more to the 76ers than a high seed would. They have the Eastern Conference’s best road record at 25-12. Matchups matter more than venues to them.

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