NBA Playoff Picture and Scenarios for the Final Day of the 2021-22 Season
Stacy Revere/Getty Images. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks, Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The last day of the NBA season has arrived, and we still don’t know 11 of the 20 postseason (playoffs + play-in) spots.
The chaos reigns, and the ramifications could be huge for team’s postseason success. Whether it’s avoiding the Nets, getting homecourt in the first-round, staying out of Phoenix’s bracket, or avoiding that bad matchup, there’s a lot teams have to consider as they head into Sunday’s action.
Here’s a guide to what we know, and what we’ll find out on Sunday.
1: MIAMI HEAT
The Heat have clinched the 1-seed and homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. They will face the winner of the last Eastern Conference play-in game between the loser of the 7-8 matchup and the winner of the 9-10 matchup. Miami is probably fine with any result that doesn’t include the Brooklyn Nets.
2/3/4: MILWAUKEE BUCKS/BOSTON CELTICS/PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
This is super complicated, bear with me. Here’s how this works.
If the Bucks win, they finish with a better overall record than any other team, and they will clinch the 2-seed.
If the Bucks lose, and the Celtics win, those two teams tie. Here are the tiebreakers:
Head to head record: split 2-2.
Conference record: would finish tied at 33-19.
The next tiebreaker is record vs. conference playoff teams. I emailed the NBA to see whether that means the top-six teams in the conference, the top-six teams in the conference, or the top-10 including the teams in the play-in. The NBA let me know it is all teams in the playoffs or play-in.
Under those conditions, the Celtics will finish with a 20-13 record, the Bucks with a 17-15 record, and so the Celtics clinch the tiebreaker.
So, if the Celtics win and the Bucks lose, the Celtics get the 2-seed and the Bucks get the 3-seed and will face the Bulls.
You might be asking “what if the Sixers win and tie them if the Bucks lose and the Celtics win?”
In a three-way tie involving division winners, the first thing you have to do is sort out division winners. So Boston beats the Sixers by having division-record tiebreaker, and the Bucks and Celtics go to 2 and 3 and then are sorted out by the above long-winded tiebreaker.
The Sixers cannot move up to the 2-seed thanks to the Bucks’ win Friday. The Bucks have tiebreaker over the Sixers 2-1 in head-to-head and won their division, so no matter what, the Bucks will finish ahead of the Sixers.
The Sixers can pass the Celtics, however.
If the Celtics lose, and the Sixers win, the Sixers will get the 3-seed outright (regardless of what happens with the Bucks) and the Celtics will fall to the 4-seed.
If all three teams win, the Bucks win outright on record, the Celtics beat the Sixers for 3rd with tiebreaker, and the Sixers wind up 4th.
The Bucks play the Cavs, who are looking to regain control of the 7-seed and homecourt in the first play-in game. Milwaukee has listed most of its starters on the injury report as doubtful or questionable; it’s likely the Bucks rest, given that they cannot slide to 4th.
The Celtics play the Grizzlies, who have nothing to play for, but that hasn’t stopped them from wreaking havoc over the last two weeks.
The Sixers play the Pistons, who are likely maneuvering for draft position.
The most likely outcome:
5: TORONTO RAPTORS
The Raptors have clinched the 5-seed with their win Thurday over the Sixers and the Sixers’ win Saturday vs. the Pacers. They’ll face either the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers in a first-round series.
6: CHICAGO BULLS
The Bulls have clinched the 6th seed and will play either the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, or Philadelphia 76ers in the first round and will be heavy, heavy underdogs in any of those series. What an unfortunate finish to the season for such a fun and bright Bulls team through the first four months of the season.
7: BROOKLYN NETS/CLEVELAND CAVALIERS/ATLANTA HAWKS/CHARLOTTE HORNETS
Oh, boy. OK, buckle up, get a drink, whatever you need to do.
The Nets are tied with the Cavs and own tiebreaker and are one game up on the Hornets and Hawks.
If the Nets win on Sunday vs. the Pacers, they’re the 7-seed, no matter what else happens. Win and they’re in the 7-spot, hosting the play-in games with two shots at a playoff spot.
If the Nets lose and the Cavs win, the Cavs slip by them and win the 7-seed. The Cavs face the (likely resting) Bucks Sunday.
If both the Nets and Cavs win, it stays the same as it is currently with the Nets in the 7-spot and the Cavs in 8th, visiting the Nets on Tuesday for the play-in game for the 7-seed.
Let’s go through the aftermath of both of those outcomes.
If the Nets win and the Cavs lose:
The Hawks and Hornets have tiebreaker over the Cavs. The Hornets have tiebreaker over the Hawks.
So if the Cavs lose and the Hawks and Hornets both tie them, it goes to cumulative record between the two. The Hornets take that (despite the Hawks having tiebreaker over the Hornets directly) and move into the 8th spot to face Brooklyn, the Hawks would be 9th, and the Cavs slide all the way to 10th.
If the Cavs lose and the Hawks win and the Hornets lose:
If the Cavs lose and the Hawks lose and the Hornets win:
Now, if the Cavs win and the Nets lose, putting the Cavs in 7th and dropping the Nets into tiebreaker, it all gets switched up.
If the Nets lose and the Hawks and Hornets both win, it’s a three-way tie. The Hornets are 4-3 vs. those teams, the Nets 4-4 and the Hawks 3-4. So…
If the Nets lose, and the Hawks win, and the Hornets lose, the Nets have tiebreaker over the Hawks, so…
If the Nets lose and the Hawks lose and the Hornets win, the Hornets hold the tiebreaker over the Nets:
If the Nets and Cavs both lose, and the Hawks and Hornets both win, we’ve got a four-way tie! Here’s how that shakes out by cumulative record betwixt the teams:
So the Nets get 7, the Cavs get 10th, and the Hawks’ head-to-head tiebreaker over the Hornets gets them 9th.
If the Nets and Cavs lose, and the Hawks win, and the Hornets lose:
If the Nets and Cavs lose, and the Hawks lose, and the Hornets win:
Finally, if the Cavs and Nets win (with the Nets 7 and the Cavs 8), and the Hawks and Hornets both win:
Get it? Got it? Good.
1: PHOENIX SUNS
The Suns locked the 1-seed several weeks ago and will have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs all the way through the Finals, if they reach them.
2: MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
The Grizzlies are locked into the 2-seed and will have homecourt in the first-two rounds (should they advance).
3: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS/DALLAS MAVERICKS
The Warriors lead by one game, and the Mavericks have the tiebreaker, so this one’s pretty simple.
If the Warriors beat the Pelicans, they are the 3-seed. If the Mavericks lose to the Spurs, the Warriors are the 3-seed. If the Warriors lose and the Mavericks win, the Mavs are 3rd and the Warriors are 4th.
If you’re wondering what the motivations are, the Mavericks have a lot of incentive to win. If they can get a win and a Warriors loss, that moves them into a 3-6 matchup against likely Denver, a team they won the season series with who is extremely shorthanded and exhausted. The Mavs would then in the second round play the Grizzlies, a team they have owned the last three years.
Dallas would also stay out of Phoenix’ side of the bracket until the conference finals.
The Warriors, likewise, are probably trying to avoid playing the Suns in the second round, but the Warriors also tend to prioritize rest above all else. Both the Warriors and Mavs play teams with nothing left to play for who are locked into their seeds.
5/6: UTAH JAZZ/DENVER NUGGETS
The Jazz and Nuggets are tied, but the Jazz have tiebreaker after sweeping the season series.
If the Jazz win, they’re the 5-seed. If the Nuggets lose, the Jazz are 5 and the Nuggets are 6.
If the Jazz lose and the Nuggets win, the Nuggets are the 5 and the Jazz are the 6.
The Jazz play the Portland Trail Blazers tomorrow, and, honestly, I don’t know if it’s possible for any team to out-tank the Blazers right now. The Nuggets play the Lakers without their stars, and the Nuggets have already indicated they’ll rest their starters in that game.
Denver likely wants to lose its game to the Lakers. They get the 6th seed and stay out of Phoenix’s side of the bracket. There’s honestly not much of a difference between the Warriors and Mavericks for Denver. The Warriors are a better team but also a better matchup for Denver, and the Mavericks are a worse team but a tougher matchup for Denver.
The Nuggets will be heavy dogs in either series.
7: MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
The Wolves are locked into the 7th seed and will host the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday for the 7-seed.
8: LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers are locked into the 8th seed and will head to Minnesota to face the Wolves for the first play-in game.
9: NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
The Pelicans are locked into the 9th seed and will host the Spurs on Wednesday. The winner faces the loser of Wolves-Clippers for the 8th seed.
10: SAN ANTONIO SPURS
The Spurs are locked into the 10th seed and will have to win two road games to make the playoffs as the 8th seed, first against the Pelicans and then against the loser of Wolves-Clippers.
The Warriors and Mavericks both want to win to get the 3-seed.
The Nets, Cavs, Hornets, and Hawks all want to win to try and move up or secure best play-in spot possible.
The Jazz and Nuggets both are likely passive about their playoff position.
The Celtics, Bucks, and Sixers all have questionable motivation. A 2-seed for Boston or Milwaukee risks a first-round series with Brooklyn, but they haven’t acted scared of the Nets at all, or they would have lost on Friday.
The Sixers might want to move into the 3-seed for a matchup with the Bulls instead of the Raptors, but that means their second-round opponent is the Bucks or, possibly, the Nets.
(It’s also possible the Cavs, Hornets, or Hawks win the 7th seed, and the Nets win the 8th, which would make the 4th seed’s path to the conference Finals: Toronto, then the winner of Heat-Nets. The 2-3-6 bracket might not be bad.)