The last nine months in the NBA’s Eastern Conference have been an arms race of Cold War proportions. Now, with 14 games remaining and five legitimate contenders vying for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the stakes are nothing less than total annihilation. Or, at least, a chance to face the Nets.
In the spirit of the season, I recently spent a few hours hunkered down in my fortified bunker compiling intelligence reports — i.e. sitting on an office chair I recently purchased off eBay while attempting to summon the conditional formatting skills I learned in eighth-grade computer science class. (When I was in eighth grade, Excel still counted as computer science, so to all toddlers currently eating Veggie Stix and developing A.I. apps on your Fisher Price iPads, don’t forget to hire your Uncle Dave in a few years.)
Behold, the remaining schedules for the Big Five:
I realize that, in general, Philly.com readers are proud residents of the intellectual upper crust, so you probably don’t need me to explain what you are looking at. But for all of you summer birthdays and Syracuse grads, the red rectangles are opponents with .600+ winning percentages, the yellow are .500+, the blue are the guys who are bad and trying, and the green are the tankers. The last two categories involve somewhat arbitrary end points, but, hey, life in general is just two arbitrary end points.
Here’s another pretty picture, which is similar to the first one, except arranged in order of quality of opponent:
After careful study of the information, here are a few things we can say with reasonable certainty:
1) Nobody is catching the Bucks and the Raptors, so pencil them in as your top two seeds. As for their exact finish, Toronto has a clear edge in terms of strength of schedule, with 10 of their remaining 14 games coming against teams that entered Tuesday below .500. (Why Tuesday, you ask? Because that’s when I compiled the records.) On the other hand, the Bucks have won 70 percent of their games against opponents with a .600+ winning percentage. Even if the Bucks go 6-5 in their 11 toughest remaining games, a sweep of the Hawks and Cavs would leave them at 60 wins, which would leave the Raptors needing to go 12-2 to tie them.
2) It would take a dramatic reversal of expectation for the Pacers to avoid the fifth seed, given that eight of their remaining 14 games are against .600+ teams, a cohort against which they have lost 13 of 17 games this season.
3) The Sixers have the second-worst record of the bunch against .600+ teams, but nobody besides the Bucks has done particularly well. The good news is that the Sixers have only three games remaining against that group. At this point, their two-game lead over the Celtics is huge. If they don’t win at least nine of their final 14 to equal last year’s win total, it will be a huge disappointment.
4) Assuming that the Pacers end up as the five seed, there’s an argument to be made that the difference between the Sixers’ finishing at No. 3 and No. 4 is relatively moot. At No. 3, the Sixers would face the possibility of a first-round matchup against the Nets, who are very much the embodiment of the Sixers’ kryptonite, having beaten them in two of three this season while scoring 127, 125, and 122 points in the series. Meanwhile, the Sixers have taken three of four from the Pacers, the last two in blowout fashion.
5) Given the above point, it is good news that the Nets face a brutal schedule the rest of the way, including last night’s loss to the Thunder. Ten of their remaining 12 games are against teams with winning records, and seven are against teams in that .600+ group. Their next six games are on the road, the last of them in Philly.
6) The bad news for Nets watchers is that things are just as tough for the Pistons, who still have eight games remaining against the Raptors, Warriors, Trailblazers (two), Nuggets, Pacers (two), and Thunder.
With all that said, here’s what the cocktail napkin says:
1) Milwaukee 61-21
2) Raptors 60-22
3) Sixers 53-29
4) Celtics 52-30
5) Pacers 48-44
6) Nets 41-41
7) Pistons 41-41
8) Heat 39-43