Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Predicting the Seeding of the NBA Playoffs, Part 1

Last week, I predicted that the Indiana Pacers would win the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs over the Charlotte Bobcats.  Now that--barring a major turn of events--the Pacers will get the privilege of being thrashed in Round One by the Chicago Bulls, the 16 NBA playoff teams are set.  With that in mind, it's time to turn our attention to the next important pre-playoffs question: what will be the seeding of the teams in each conference?  With a week left in the season, only three sets of playoff teams are within one game of each other in the standings.  The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are tied for 2nd in the Eastern Conference, while the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers are tied (in the loss column) for 6th.  The Western Conference features three teams within a game of each other in 6th through 8th place right now: the Portland Trailblazers (6th) are half a game ahead of New Orleans Hornets (7th) who are half a game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies (8th).  Where will each team end up?  Let's break down each team's schedule to figure it out.

The most important close race for playoff seeding is definitely the one between the Celtics and the Heat.  Assuming both teams win their first round matchups (against the Knicks and 76ers), whoever wins the 2nd seed will have homecourt advantage in their second round meeting.  Let's look at both teams' remaining schedules and see how this matchup will shake out.

Boston Celtics (Predicted Game Result)
4/7 @ Chicago (L)
4/8 vs. Washington (W)
4/10 @ Miami (L)
4/11 @ Washington (W)
4/13 vs. New York (W)

Miami Heat
4/6 vs. Milwaukee (W)
4/8 vs. Charlotte (W)
4/10 vs. Boston (W)
4/11 vs. Atlanta (L)
4/13 @ Toronto (W)

                                                                   Verdict: Miami Heat by 1 game
This matchup essentially comes down to the April 10th meeting between the two teams in Miami.  Each team has three easy games that they'll probably win and one tough road game that they'll probably lose.  This leaves the Heat-Celtics matchup on Sunday deciding the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference.  Though it will certainly be a close game, I am predicting a victory for Lebron (see left) and the Heat, giving them eventual home court advantage in the second round.  It is true that the Celtics have beaten the Heat in all three matchups this far in 2010-2011; however, two of those games were in November, when the Heat were still gelling as a unit.  The third meeting between the two teams was a Celtics victory in Boston, but Sunday's game is in Miami, a crucial factor in deciding the result.  Both teams are prolific at home, with the Celtics going 31-8 and the Heat running their home record to 28-10, including a 21-7 mark since their frustrating 9-8 start.   The Heat have won six of their seven last home games, including wins over San Antonio, Memphis, Denver, and the Lakers.  They've also shown they can win close games, winning their last four contests decided by six points or less.  The Celtics, by contrast, have lost four of five games decided by seven points or less.  The Heats' significant homecourt advantage, coupled with their recent ability to win close games, will propel them to a victory over the Celtics and the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The other matchup in the Eastern Conference division rivals New York and Philadelphia fighting for the 6th seed in the East.  The winner of this race faces the loser of the Heat-Celtics race above, and would theoretically have a marginally easier task in the first round.  The teams are currently tied in the loss column (Philly has one more win than the Knicks) going into their head-to-head matchup tonight in Philadelphia.  Let's break down their schedules.

New York Knicks
4/6 @ Philadelphia (W)
4/8 @ New Jersey (W)
4/10 @ Indiana (L)
4/12 vs. Chicago (L)
4/13 @ Boston (L)

Philadelphia 76ers
4/6 vs. New York (L)
4/8 vs. Toronto (W)
4/11 vs. Orlando (W)
4/13 vs. Detroit (W)

Verdict: Philadelphia 76ers by 2 games
Though I am predicting a Knicks victory over the 76ers tonight, I still believe that the 76ers will edge the Knicks for the 6th seed in the East.  The Knicks come into tonight's matchup on a four-game winning streak, and they are starting to click on offense for the first time since the Carmelo Anthony (see right) trade.  In fact, the Knicks recorded assists on 31 of 45 field goals against Toronto last night, showing their teamwork and chemistry has taken a step forward.  For this reason, they will defeat the less-talented 76ers tonight.  However, Philadelphia will get the last laugh as they beat out the Knicks for playoff positioning.  Of the Knicks five remaining games, only one is at home, and it is against the top-seeded Bulls.  They also face the Celtics in Boston--a near-certain loss--and the Nets, for what should be a win.  That leaves their meeting in Indiana with the Pacers.  The Knicks match up poorly with the Pacers' tough frontcourt, and they have lost both meetings with Indiana since acquiring Melo.  I see the Knicks going down in this pivotal game against the Pacers.  Even if I'm wrong about that, though, I still see the 76ers taking the 6th seed outright by pulling an upset over the Magic.  All four games remaining for Philly are at home, and they should coast to victories over the lottery-bound Pistons and Raptors.  Against the Magic, however, Philadelphia encounters a 49-29 team with a deep backcourt and a dominant center in Dwight Howard. Even at home, the 76ers would usually lose this game.  However, the Magic have been banged up for some time, and they are already guaranteed to finish as the East's #4 seed.  This means that Orlando should sit some of its important players, like Gilbert Arenas, Quentin Richardson, and even Howard.  Against the Magic's junior varsity lineup, the 76ers will be able to pull out a victory at home and win the 6th seed from the Knicks by two full games.  Only if the Knicks beat the Pacers and the 76ers fall to the Magic--meaning I go 0-2 on these games--would the Knicks eke their way into the #6 slot by beating Philadelphia on tiebreaker number two: divisional record.  Assuming my predictions do hold even a tiny bit, though, the 76ers should be the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

This would mean that the Knicks face the Heat and the 76ers face the Celtics in the first round.  Assuming both favorites win their first round matchups, the Heat would hold homecourt advantage over the Celtics in round two.  Tomorrow we'll go in-depth and predict the three-way race out West between New Orleans, Memphis, and Portland.

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