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Moore’s Eastern Conference Playoff Picture, Scenarios, Projections: Philly Makes Its Move, Magic Slip

Moore’s Eastern Conference Playoff Picture, Scenarios, Projections: Philly Makes Its Move, Magic Slip article feature image

Photo credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler

  • Who will make the 2018-19 NBA playoffs from the Eastern Conference?
  • Matt Moore runs through the complete playoff picture, including the current standings, potential scenarios and projections for where it will all land.

The NBA playoffs begin in 33 days. The season is down to fewer than 20 games for most teams. We are in crunch time.

Have a bad week? There goes home court. Have a bad two weeks? Your playoff spot might be in jeopardy.

This is when things get toughest, between the exhaustion, injuries and pressure. It’s go time.

Here’s a look at the Eastern Conference NBA playoff picture entering the games on Monday, March 11.

Magic numbers refer to the combination of wins and losses by the closest team in contention (and by extension, all subsequent teams) to secure a spot in question.

For example, if a team’s magic number is four for a playoff spot, they need four wins to clinch a playoff spot … or three wins and the ninth seed to lose one game … or two wins and the ninth seed to lose two games … or one win and the ninth seed to lose three games.

Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

1. Milwaukee Bucks (48-16)

Playoff spot: Clinched

Home court: The magic number is eight for home court in the first round, 12 for home court in the first two rounds (a top-two seed) and 16 for home court throughout the playoffs.

The Bucks are three up on the Raptors in the loss column and own the tiebreaker. The first round is obviously a lock. The second-round is basically a lock.

Considering that you have to expect every team past Toronto to have at least four more losses to finish the season, Milwaukee needs just four more for a top-two seed. That’s donezo.

The Bucks’ lead over the Raptors is considerable. Toronto would have to go on a fairly berserk run or Milwaukee would have to really fall off to open this up, but the Bucks did slip on this West coast road trip, opening the door a bit more.

That said, a pedestrian 8-7 finish for Milwaukee would necessitate an 11-4 finish from the Raptors to cough up homecourt.

So yeah, Milwaukee’s going to be the 1-seed.

2. Toronto Raptors (46-18)

Playoff spot: Clinched

Home court: Toronto’s magic number for home court in the first round is eight. That’s a lock. It’s 9 for the second round, and I’d go ahead and call that a lock, as well.

Toronto is going to win, at the very least, seven of its final 15. Plus, Indiana and Philadelphia lack the kind of gear to really make a run at the Raptors.

Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard

As stated above, the Bucks probably have a lead the Raptors can’t get past for the 1-seed.

Toronto is probably fine right there, by the way. The Raptors aren’t worried about going into Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference Finals, and there’s a decent chance they wind up with either Indiana, Brooklyn or Detroit in Round 2 — and that’s all preferable to whoever comes out of Boston-Philly.

Even if the Sixers secure the 3-seed, you have to think the Raptors feel good about winning four of seven. I’m a little more skittish on that matchup, though. Joel Embiid might give Toronto a harder time than the other East contenders.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (42-25)

Playoff spot: The Sixers’ magic number is four. That’s a lock. They’re in.

Home court: Their magic number for home court in the first round is 15. This is a lot dicier.

Things are shaping up nicely for the Sixers, but they can’t afford a screw-up. Boston is only one back in the loss column and has the tiebreaker. Philly’s win Sunday over Indiana was monstrous, though. As a result, the 76ers caught the Pacers in the loss column and gave Philly the tiebreaker. That’s huge, and the Pacers schedule will likely drop them.

The Sixers have a relatively weak remaining schedule (.472 opponent win percentage), even with 11-of-19 on the road. But they have to keep the Celtics, who have the tiebreaker, at bay.

Philly has not been able to figure out how to beat Boston going back to last season. The Celtics’ bigs deter Embiid and are able to scheme against Ben Simmons harder than anyone. So Philly needs to get out of that matchup.

If the Celtics get to 3, that’s fine; take Indy in the 4-5. But if the Celtics stay in 4-5, Philly has got to get out of it.

4. Indiana Pacers (42-25)

Playoff spot: The Pacers’ magic number is 4. They’re a lock.

Home court: The schedule may be their downfall. Their magic number for homecourt is 15.

They lost control of the 3-seed to the Sixers on Sunday and lost the tiebreaker. They’re 1-1 with Boston but Boston is surging. And the Pacers’ schedule is a nightmare. They have the sixth-toughest remaining schedule, compared to 13th for Boston and 26th for Philly.

They’re going to make the playoffs, but without Victor Oladipo, it’s certainly looking like a one-and-done. The odds of Indiana staying above the 5-seed are getting perilous. A six-game lead in the loss column from Detroit should keep them above that, however.

5. Boston Celtics (41-26)

Playoff spot: The Celtics’ magic number is 6. Lock it in.

Home court: They surged right as Philly and the Pacers hit a swoon, and now they’re right back in it.

They’re one back in the loss column for third and have the tiebreaker over the Sixers. They’re in a great position to swoop in late and nab a 3-seed.

Kyrie Irving is right when he says that the Celtics should feel like they can beat any team in a seven-game playoff series. They can. They don’t need home court.

But last season’s road performance is concerning, as is the fact they’re just 17-16 on the road.

If the Celtics wind up playing Philly, they’d be set up fine in that first series and beyond. Milwaukee won the season series, but the Celtics could have a higher gear and a way to scheme Giannis in seven games that they couldn’t execute in the regular season.

Let me put it this way: The Celtics are going to have a hard road no matter what, but they’re surging at the right time. 

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The Rest: Detroit Pistons (34-31), Brooklyn Nets (35-33), Miami Heat (31-35), Orlando Magic (31-37), Charlotte Hornets (30-36)

Magic numbers

6. Pistons: 12
7. Nets: 11
8. Heat: 15

What a mess.

Some context: The Magic are currently in ninth because of win percentage, but they’re actually behind the 10th-place Hornets in the loss column, so Orlando needs Charlotte to lose even if it catches Miami.

Again, it’s a mess.

The Pistons have finally dragged themselves out of the muck, though. They’re now suddenly five up in the loss column on Charlotte and those teams simply don’t win at a high enough rate for two out of three of Miami, Orlando, Charlotte to outpace them. They’re good to go. The Pistons lost the tiebreaker to Charlotte and are tied 1-1 with Brooklyn, but lead 2-1 against Miami and Orlando.

They’ve moved out of the bubble and into near-lock territory. They’d have to collapse to miss.

Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Blake Griffin

The difference at the bottom of the East vs. the top of the East is that the top is very unlikely to rattle off a four-game losing streak while these teams at the bottom could do so if they didn’t play one another.

I would point out that Detroit has the best net rating league-wide since the All-Star Break, and a reasonable opponent win percentage (.463) remaining.

After that? It’s just a complete mess.

Brooklyn got itself a bit of a breather this week, now up three in the loss column. The Nets have the toughest remaining schedule with a West coast road trip against the Thunder, Clippers, Jazz and Kings, then a finish against Milwaukee (twice), Toronto and Indiana.

The good news is that their closing stretch could feature Bucks and Raptors teams that clinched the 1- and 2-seeds and are resting players, with an outside chance of the same against Indiana.

Brooklyn got itself off the ledge, but a win over Detroit next would help immensely.

Orlando is in a really tough spot. The Magic trail Detroit and Charlotte for the tiebreaker, and lost it outright to Brooklyn. They lead Miami 2-1.

The Magic have slipped this week, falling all the way to ninth by loss column. That loss to the Grizzlies Sunday (in which they led late) was killer. They play Miami and Charlotte still so they can gain some ground but they have to find a way to beat the bad teams.

Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) shoots against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first half at Moda Center.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic

Orlando has the fifth-easiest remaining schedule, which is horrible for them. No joke: Among the top-11 teams in the East, the Magic have the worst win percentage against teams worse than .500, while having the fifth-most wins against teams better than .500.

So this gift of a schedule is a nightmare for the Magic. They have to get out of their own way to make the playoffs.

Miami’s win over Charlotte was huge. It staved off tiebreaker for Charlotte and put Miami in the driver’s seat for the 8-seed. The Heat have the seventh-toughest schedule, but it’s not as top-heavy and brutal as Charlotte’s, and they play Charlotte once more and Orlando once more. They control their destiny, and that’s a big deal.

Charlotte’s remaining schedule is just horrifying. The Rockets, Sixers, Celtics, Raptors, Warriors and Jazz, all remaining. The Hornets are going to have to hope for Miami to fail alongside them, or for a miracle stretch of catching teams with guys missing just to have a chance.

Here’s an image of the dreadful, depressing, broken Washington Wizards, who sit just four back in the loss column from Miami:

Eastern Conference Playoff Projections

This is not based on a statistical analysis of odds to win or the 538 or ESPN projections — which, by the way, are very sensitive to win streaks of three or more.

This is just based on what I’m thinking. A win streak or injury can obviously change things. Prediction as of 3/11:

  1. Milwaukee Bucks
  2. Toronto Raptors
  3. Philadelphia 76ers
  4. Boston Celtics
  5. Indiana Pacers
  6. Detroit Pistons
  7. Miami Heat
  8. Brooklyn Nets

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