NBA Playoff Picture: Magic Numbers, Schedules, Tiebreakers for Every Team in the Hunt

NBA Playoff Picture: Magic Numbers, Schedules, Tiebreakers for Every Team in the Hunt article feature image

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

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The NBA playoffs begin in six weeks, and there’s still so much to figure out. We know Boston and the Raptors will, at the very least, be top-three seeds in the East, probably top-two. We know Houston and Golden State will be top-two in the West. We feel confident Cleveland and Washington make it … aaaand everything else is up in the air.

Here’s a look at the playoff picture as we begin March, including schedule and tiebreaker breakdowns.

Magic numbers for clinching a playoff spot in parentheses; all info from prior to the games on March 2.


LOCKS:  Toronto (8), Boston (6), Cleveland (15)
NEAR LOCKS: Washington (14)
IN THE HUNT: Indiana (17), Philadelphia (17), Milwaukee (18), Miami (19), Detroit (NA)


Toronto Raptors: Their magic number for the No. 1 seed throughout the East playoffs is 21, for a top-two seed it’s only 15. For comparison, 15 is Cleveland’s magic number just for a playoff spot. I’d consider Toronto a near-lock for a top-two seed.


Boston Celtics: They’re two back in the loss column from Toronto but back to playing great defense again. Boston’s magic numbers are actually lower than Toronto’s on account of tiebreaker advantage and having played more games, leading in the win column. However, the Celtics don’t control their own destiny for the 1-seed. Their tiebreaker situation isn’t ideal, tied with Toronto and Washington, and trailing Cleveland. But their closing schedule, after a fairly tough March, is cheesecake .

Cleveland Cavaliers: With the Cavs losing again on Thursday, this time to the Sixers, the “will the Cavs even make the playoffs?!” talk bubbled up again. Let’s be clear: Cleveland is going to get in. Yes, 13 of its final 23 are on the road. But Cleveland only has two back-to-backs left, only 11 are against teams over .500, and with a magic number of 15, going 8-15 still probably gets them in. There are just very few scenarios where things go so bad as to put them in danger of being out. But the 1-seed ship has already sailed, and a top-two seed is almost out of reach. They will most likely finish third, setting up one hell of a second-round matchup with either Toronto or Boston.


Washington Wizards: Washington has managed well enough without John Wall, and its tiebreaker situation is pretty solid. The Wizards own tiebreakers heads up or by virtue of their very-likely division victory in most cases against the teams behind them, and if Toronto were to suffer a slippage, the Wizards have advantage there as well. Unfortunately, their schedule is a nightmare. Of their 20 remaining games, 14 are against playoff teams, with an additional game vs. the Pistons, who are still in the hunt. The gap is still wide enough to believe they’re a near-lock, but it could get dicey for a while.



Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are five up in the loss column, so they have some breathing room, and a nosedive from the Pistons will finish it off. But Indiana has lost two in a row and has looked shaky the past month or so. The Pacers’ magic number of 17 is just high enough to think they might be vulnerable. They’re within a burst of moving to near-lock, though. They have lost tiebreaker to the Pistons.

Philadelphia 76ers: I very nearly put Philly in the near-lock category. The 76ers have played great basketball since getting back from the London trip in early January, rattling off big win after big win. They aren’t behind in tiebreaker to any of the teams they’re battling with for seeding. They’ve clinched vs. Detroit.

Milwaukee Bucks: Milwaukee is all over the place. The Bucks’ magic number is 18, but they split season series with Detroit and the Pistons lead in division record. They’re still up four in the loss column, so like the rest of these teams, the Pistons can put the Bucks’ mind at ease with a losing streak. Milwaukee could use one more push to move it to near-lock.


Miami Heat: It’s been a struggle the past month or so, and their rotation is jammed with guys who if you trust in them, they can vanish, and then if you don’t play them, they look like a better option. Dwyane Wade complicates things with his need for the ball and the dynamics in play, even after his buzzer beater earlier this week. The Heat don’t own tiebreaker vs. Detroit; they play once more Saturday. A Miami loss clinches the tiebreaker for Detroit and the Pistons them within one in the loss column. Miami is on the edge.


Detroit Pistons: They have not been awesome since getting off to a hot start following the Blake trade. The Pistons’ tiebreaker situation is solid, but they need some help and one losing streak would put them likely too far back. Detroit have a six-game West road trip coming up that will decide a lot. If it falls apart there, that’s the ballgame.


Charlotte Hornets: Charlotte made a little mini-run to get back within range, but the Hornets are four games back with Detroit ahead of them, and they lost tiebreaker to Miami. About half of their remaining games are against playoff opponents, though they do finish with two games vs. Indiana. If the Pacers clinch a spot, they might catch some help with rest at the end. Charlotte has no room for error at this point.


LOCKS: Houston (7), Golden State (6)

THE WHOLE DAMN REST OF THE PACK: Minnesota (16), San Antonio (18), Portland (19), New Orleans (20), Oklahoma City (19), Denver (22), LA Clippers, Utah, LA Lakers


Houston Rockets: The Rockets have won on back to backs and on the road and at home. They’ve won vs. good teams (26-9 vs. teams over .500, the fewest losses in the league) and bad teams (22-4 vs. teams under .500, tied for the fewest losses). They have done everything possible to secure that 1-seed. And yet, 14 of their final 21 are against playoff teams. They do lead Golden State by one game in the loss column, and clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker. That helps. But you just get the feeling that Houston will slip just enough for the Warriors to slide by them. If they don’t, it could have massive implications for the conference finals.


Golden State Warriors: The Dubs haven’t tried this year. They have barely shown up. They don’t need home court to win the title. And yet, they’re one game back in the loss column with an easier closing schedule and have come back from All-Star firing on all cylinders. The Warriors won’t have a gaudy record, but they won’t need it. They can win the No. 1 seed, dealing a blow to Houston’s confidence, secure home court in the toughest environment in the league, and set themselves up for everything to go as planned. The only question then is if they’ll sweep the playoffs again.


Minnesota Timberwolves: The Jimmy Butler injury throws everything into chaos. The Wolves’ closing schedule is a mix of lottery teams and playoff squads, but their next seven are absolutely brutal. They might recover late, but they’ll have to pull a few rabbits out of hats to keep their positioning. The good news is Minnesota’s tiebreaker situation is just about perfect, thanks to its awesome 9-3 division record. The Wolves clinched their head-to-head tiebreaker vs. the Clippers, Pelicans and Thunder. They lead or split with Portland, Denver, and Utah. That 9-3 division record means Utah can’t catch them, so they’ve clinched there as well. Two more division wins clinches tiebreaker vs. all four Northwest division teams. But they have to actually finish tied or above. It’s going to be touch and go for a while.

Portland Trail Blazers: Boy, did the win vs. the Wolves on Thursday help. Portland plays 14 of its final 20 vs. playoff teams, with only half coming at home. However, that win gets the Blazers back to .500 in division, which helps vs. not only Minnesota, but Denver and Utah as well. They trail Denver, Utah and New Orleans 2-1 with one to play, and are tied with the Clippers and Spurs. They lead 2-0 vs. the Thunder. They’ve been on a great run, but they’re still only up two in the loss column. Every division game from here on out is a must-win.

San Antonio Spurs: Yes, the Spurs really are in the mire and could miss the playoffs. It’s not likely. But it’s there. Fifteen of the Spurs’ final 21 games are against teams over .500, and San Antonio is 13-21 against opponents over .500 this season. Yikes. The Spurs also lost tiebreaker to the Jazz, trail the Pelicans, are tied with Denver and Portland in season series. They own tiebreaker vs. the Clippers. San Antonio is only up two (!) in the loss column from ninth. Things are dicey for San Antonio.


New Orleans Pelicans: They won’t die! After the Cousins injury, everyone wrote them off, yet here they are, winners of seven straight. Like everyone else, 14 of their final 20 are against playoff teams. They have clinched the tiebreaker vs. Oklahoma City, are tied vs. Denver and the Clippers, and lead vs. the Spurs and Blazers with games remaining. They’re in surprisingly good position, but like everyone else, one slip and it could be over.

Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC is pretty vulnerable. The Thunder only have 19 games remaining, with 14 vs. playoff teams. They trail in the tiebreaker vs. Denver, Portland and the Pelicans. They lost tiebreaker outright to the Wolves, and are split with the Spurs. They have clinched tiebreaker vs. Utah and the Clippers, who are currently out, however. The Thunder are not the same since the Roberson injury, and they are susceptible in games vs. bad opponents, which are games they absolutely cannot lose.

Denver Nuggets: They survived the majority of their murderer’s row schedule, but it caught up to them this week with back-to-back losses vs. the Rockets and Clippers. Denver has fewer playoff opponents left (13 of 21), but it has a seven-game road trip coming up. Their tiebreaker situation is decent, if not great. They lead Portland, OKC and New Orleans, split with San Antonio and Utah. But the loss this week to the Clippers clinched LA’s tiebreaker over the Nuggets. Denver is trying to reintegrate Paul Millsap at the most tense time of the season. The Nuggets need to make hay vs. bad teams to get themselves on more solid ground. Late games vs. Denver opponents could be crucial, especially in-division.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Clips spent about 24 hours in the 8th seed after beating Denver before Houston smacked them back to 9th. Their situation is perilous. Sixteen of their final 21 are against playoff opponents. They have four back-to-backs left. LA is tied with Portland and New Orleans for tiebreaker, and own it outright vs. Denver. The Clippers lost it outright to the Wolves, Thunder and Spurs, and trail Utah 2-1 with one to play. They face a lot of bad East teams, especially in the next two weeks. They need to win all those. At this point, they need to specifically be rooting against the Nuggets to give themselves a chance.

Utah Jazz: The Jazz around, but they’ve cooled off after that 11-game win streak that had everyone excited going into the All-Star break. Only nine of their remaining 21 games are against playoff opponents, they have the most rest advantage games, the fewest back-to-backs, and the fewest rest disadvantage games. Utah’s tiebreakers are a mixed bag. It owns a tiebreaker vs. the Spurs, leads the Clippers, Pelicans, and Blazers 2-1, split with Denver, and lost to OKC. The Jazz are still two games back in the loss column.

Top photo: Russell Westbrook; David Richard-USA TODAY Sports