As we go to press just three games remain in the NBA’s regular season, and none of the eight first-round playoff series has yet to be determined.
Six of the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are known as are the top two seeds (Atlanta and Cleveland). Toronto is assured of being either the third or fourth seed by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division. Chicago has the edge over Washington for that other home court edge seed.
Milwaukee has also clinched a playoffs berth and is likely to be seeded sixth with one more win or one more loss by Boston.
The Celtics begin Monday seeded sixth, a game ahead of Brooklyn and Indiana who are tied for the eighth seed. Even Miami remains alive for the final East berth.
In the West seven of the eight playoffs participants are known, with New Orleans and Oklahoma City tied for the final spot. The Pelicans and Thunder are tied at 43-37 with New Orleans holding the tie breaker by having won 3 of 4 games with OKC this season.
Both teams have road games at Minnesota with OKC also hosting Portland on Monday night and New Orleans hosting San Antonio on Wednesday. The Spurs might rest players if they have already clinched the second seed in the West behind Golden State. Most likely, however, San Antonio will need a win to clinch the Southwest Division title as they have just one remaining with a half-game lead over both Memphis and Houston, each of whom have two games left. Portland, having clinched the Northwest Division, is assured of the fourth seed.
Dallas is locked in to the seventh seed, which leaves Houston, the LA Clippers, Memphis and San Antonio battling for the second, third, fifth and sixth seeds. Both the second and third seeds carry home court edge in the first round of the playoffs while the fifth and sixth seeds, obviously, do not.
Because of the unprecedented state of flux the playoff picture with just three days remaining forecasts of the opening round cannot be made with so many possible scenarios and matchups.
Rather, here is a broad overview of how they may unfold.
Atlanta will be the top seed with Cleveland seeded second. The Cavs have been the hottest team in the East for most of the past two months and will likely open up later this week as the betting favorite to win the Eastern Conference title.
Atlanta should get by its first round opponent although both Boston and Indiana are capable of making things more difficult for the Hawks than should Brooklyn or Miami.
Cleveland should have little difficulty getting by whichever team earns the seventh seed and is the most likely team, East or West, to complete a four game sweep on the winning side.
Of the top four seeds Toronto would seem to be the most vulnerable but they are likely to face Milwaukee in a three/six matchup. However if the Raptors finish fourth and face Washington the pick would be for the Wizards to get past the Raptors. As of Monday morning Toronto/Washington is the most likely of the eight first round matchups to occur but is not yet certain.
Along with Cleveland, Milwaukee is also the most likely team to be involved in a sweep but on the losing side. Likely seeded sixth the Bucks would face either Chicago or Toronto. They would be significant underdogs against the Bulls and lesser, but still solid, underdogs against the Raptors.
Golden State should get by either New Orleans or Oklahoma City although it’s more likely that the Pelicans would win a game or two than for shorthanded OKC to do so.
The Warriors have been the best team in the league all season and their main obstacle in reaching the NBA Finals should be defending champion San Antonio.
If there is a team that can pull an upset or two that would be the LA Clippers. This is a talented and well coached team that, when healthy, can compete with any team in the league. Although they won just 1 of 4 games with Golden State two of the three losses were by 4 and 8 points. The Clippers split their four games with San Antonio.
Dallas appears to be the most likely western team to make a quick exit. The Mavericks are just 5-16 against the NBA’s “Elite” teams – those teams that have won at least 65 percent of its games.
Through Sunday the “elite” teams are Atlanta, Golden State, Houston, the LA Clippers, Memphis and San Antonio. A case can be made that despite just a 51-29 record and falling just short of meeting that definition, Cleveland should also be considered ‘elite.’
Of the elite teams Memphis might be the most vulnerable to a first round exit, unless they face Portland. The Griz were 4-0 both SU and ATS against the Blazers.
Against the elite teams cited above only San Antonio (11-6) and Golden State (10-5) have winning records. In addition to Dallas’ poor record vs. such foes Houston is just 5-13, the Clippers are 7-11 and Portland is 6-14.
Memphis is a respectable 8-8 against the elite teams has been battling nagging injuries of late and is just 4-5 over the past 2½ weeks.
In approaching the playoffs on a game to game basis one strategy is to not play the opener of a series. Look to play on the loser of Game 1 to even the series with a win in Game 2.
Blindly playing the loser of one game to win the next is known as the “zig zag” theory which was profitable for many years until widespread publicity a decade or so ago resulted in adjustments that have resulted in the theory having modest, and occasionally losing, results in recent series.
While the theory makes sense on several levels it should not be followed blindly but rather be used selectively. Consider playing a team that loses its opener at home in a competitive game to bounce back in the next home game as falling down 0-2 in a series and then going on the road is a tough situation from which to recover.
If you are looking for what should be reasonable priced teams to make surprise trips to the NBA Finals you might consider the Chicago Bulls in the East and the LA Clippers in the West.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]