The snow has fallen, the field is set, the brackets are ready to break, the madness of March is underway! While the “amateurs” take center stage this weekend, do not forget that it is still bubble season for the professionals. In each conference, the bottom of the playoff picture is in limbo. Out West, four teams are vying for a chance to perhaps trick some folks into betting against the Warriors in the first round. Over in the East, five middling teams are jostling for the last three seats at the table. It is time to recall our handy schedule breakdown
and predict who will make the cut when the season ends.
West – Portland
Four teams may have a reasonable chance at the final playoff slot, but the competition is between Denver and Portland. Dallas has a brutal home stretch and the worst rest disadvantage of any bubble team remaining; Minnesota could capsize Portland's season, but has too many road games left to salvage its own. The Nuggets currently have the 8th seed, but their remaining schedule is rather unfavorable, especially in comparison to the Blazers'. Looking at the table below, we can see that Denver is saddled with a heavy road-based and rest disadvantaged schedule. Flipping the table, Portland has a very home friendly and rest advantageous schedule remaining. Not only does Portland have the most games with a rest advantage, but those games are also versus opponents with an average winning percentage below 0.500. While Denver has the same amount of games as Portland with a rest disadvantage, their opponents are considerably tougher – including games versus the already superior Cavaliers and Rockets. Most importantly, Portland owns the tiebreaker over Denver. The Blazers lead the head-to-head series 2-1 with one more matchup to go; however, even if Portland loses that game, they have a five game lead in the loss column of the next tiebreaker – division record. Even without the tiebreaker implication, that meeting on March 28 in Portland will likely decide the playoff race. Circle that one on your calendar, I'm taking Portland.
East – Indiana, Miami, Milwaukee
While the six through ten seeds in the East may be separated by just three games, only one of playoff spot is available. Indiana and Miami will make the playoffs. For the Pacers, combining a comfortable two game lead over the eight seed with likely tiebreakers over Detroit and Chicago and a largely balanced remaining schedule structure puts them in solid position to hold on to a playoff spot. When it comes to the Heat, they simply have everything going for them. Structurally, they have the most favorable remaining schedule – they have the most home games, the largest advantage in average rest days, the most games with a rest advantage, and the most games (four) versus opponents playing on a back-to-back. Lest we forget to mention they've been the second best team in basketball since the All-Star break
And then there were three bubble teams – Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Drum roll please, the last team in is …… Milwaukee. The schedule does not do them any favors, especially in comparison to the other two. If making the playoffs is like reaching the summit atop the mountain, the Bucks are free climbing as the Pistons and Bulls share carabiners, pitons, and sandwiches
. However, even though the Bucks do not have the aid of a rest advantageous or home-heavy schedule going forward, they are the only one of the three playing competent basketball. Since Jabari Parker went down in February, Milwaukee has been amongst the NBA's best
while Detroit treaded water and Chicago plunged into disarray. Plus, they have a couple aces in the hole. Milwaukee owns the tiebreaker over both Chicago and Detroit, even if they lose the final matchup, which would be unlikely. When the Pistons travel to Milwaukee on March 31, they will be finishing off the second-half of a back-to-back and the last leg of a four-in-five nights stretch against a Bucks team with a day-off and the major rest advantage. If these teams meet at the top of the mountain at the end of the season, the Bucks have the goods to send the others tumbling back into the lottery and stand tall with Indiana and Miami.
To Be the Man, You Gotta Beat the Man
The suits at NBA headquarters would like us to believe that every game matters, but we all know that isn't true. Teams don't exactly get up for a Brooklyn Nets game like they do when, say, the Golden State Warriors come to town. And no regular season game can match the intensity or magnitude of the NBA Finals. However, some games do approach the electric atmosphere of a playoff game before the playoffs begin. If we can find regular season contests resembling the playoffs, it might be valuable when predicting performance in the real thing.
As of Thursday March 16, there are 12 teams who appear solidly in the playoffs – the top seven seeds in the West and the top five in the East. The table below shows the win-loss records and efficiency ratings of every team against the top 12 teams. On the far right of the table, I calculated the change in the efficiency numbers compared to the season totals. For example, Golden State has a 7.8 net rating versus the playoff teams, which is 3.0 points lower than their overall net rating of 10.8. Broken into components, the 3.0-point drop is due to a 0.4-point dip on offense and 2.6-point hit to the defense compared to their respective season ratings. The Golden State offense hardly seems affected by the presence of playoff-esque defense.
Perhaps a bit startling, only four teams so far this season have positive point differentials versus playoff teams and only two of those have winning records – San Antonio and Golden State. Obviously they don't have to play themselves, which helps boost their record and ratings, but the dominance displayed by these two is remarkable. Interestingly, the Raptors offense has actually been better versus the top 12 than their overall numbers – they seem to respond when the pressure is mounting. On the other hand, Houston and Cleveland both have the largest offensive declines amongst playoff teams in matchups versus their kind, suggesting their true nature, the one that counts in the playoffs, may not be quite as good as their regular season totals would suggest. This analysis is intentionally rudimentary, meant to provide merely a simple picture of the potential crossover between the regular season and the playoffs, not serve as a guide to who will win in the playoffs or who to bet the farm on.
Efficiency data courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
This week's choice is a hedge against my prediction that Portland will snag the 8th seed in the West. If this man keeps playing like this, the Nuggets may have enough juice to hold off the Blazers. One of the best and most entertaining reserves in the league, Will Barton capped off an incredible week for Denver with a 35-point explosion Thursday night in a victory over the Clippers. In the conversation for 6th Man of the Year last season, his current season has flown under the radar, even though, in many ways, he's been better this year. He's not scoring at the same rate, but he is shooting and sharing the ball like never before. His three-point percentage, true shooting percentage, and assist rate are all at career-highs. This week in particular
, he's been tremendous. In four Denver wins, Barton averaged 16.5 points and 3.5 assists, ripping the nets from three at 52.2 % on nearly six attempts. Deserving at many points earlier in the season, Will Barton is finally the 6th Man of the Week.
Late Game Heroics
Please enjoy a compilation of the best shot making and playmaking in the clutch from the past week, complete with replays and fantastic calls by broadcast teams.
Also enjoy the could-have-been buzzer from the week.