The Nets take on the Washington Wizards tonight in a battle with playoff implications. John Wall will rest for the Wizards, which could help grease the wheels for the Nets securing one of the final three spots in the playoffs.
But with a little over a week left in the NBA season, nothing is settled in the bottom rung of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
How crazy is it? Consider this: with the Bucks, Celtics, Nets, Pacers, and Heat all within 3.5 games of each other, a crazy five-way tie scenario is still in play for the final three spots in the Eastern Conference. No, really. Here’s an example of how it could work, ordered by current ranking and with current record in parenthesis:
6) Milwaukee Bucks (38-40) — Lose to NYK, BKN, PHI, BOS: 38-44
7) Boston Celtics (36-42) — Lose to CLE, CLE, Beat TOR, MIL: 38-44
8) Brooklyn Nets (36-42) — Beat WAS, Beat MIL, Lose to CHI, Lose to ORL: 38-44
9) Indiana Pacers (35-43) — Beat DET, OKC, WAS, Lose to MEM: 38-44
10) Miami Heat (35-44) — Beat TOR, ORL, PHI: 38-44[note]Different combinations could also work in a couple of places. For example, the Nets could still lose to the Wizards tonight and make up for it by beating the Magic in the season finale.[/note]
It hinges on the Bucks losing the rest of their games, which isn’t likely. But either way, Nets fans shouldn’t hope for that: in the five-way tie scenario, the Bucks would keep the sixth seed, Boston would keep the seventh seed, and Indiana would sneak into the eighth, with the Heat falling into 9th place and the Nets 10th.[note]Here’s how it works: if more than two teams are tied in the race, the team with the best head-to-head record against all the other teams wins out. The Bucks would be 10-5 in this scenario against the four other teams, and the Celtics would be 8-7, needing to beat the Bucks for it to be possible. Indiana and Miami would be tied at .500, but the Pacers would have a better conference winning percentage, so the Pacers would beat the Heat for the eighth seed. The Nets are a combined 4-10 against these four teams, and would be 5-10 if they beat the Bucks, still well short of contention.[/note]
But aside from that ridiculous scenario, here’s the short of it: with four games remaining, and the Nets largely control their own destiny. If they win outright or lose just one game, they’re guaranteed to make the playoffs. It gets a little murkier if they lose two or more.
Here’s a rundown of the possibilities:
The Nets can get the sixth seed if… They win their remaining four games outright and the Bucks close the season 1-3, or they win three of their final four games and the Bucks lose outright, and the Celtics win at least one game fewer than the Nets in the same span. They can’t get the sixth seed if they go 2-2 or worse.
How likely is it? Not likely. The Bucks have spiraled since trading for Michael Carter-Williams at the All-Star break, but they also face two near-guaranteed wins in the Knicks and 76ers.[note]Which is the biggest reason why the above five-game scenario probably won’t happen.[/note] As long as they take care of business in those two games, they’ll earn the sixth seed. Their other two games come against the Nets and Celtics, the teams they’re fighting for playoff position.
Even if the Bucks don’t close out, the Nets still have to worry about the Celtics, but they have the toughest schedule left: two games against the Cavaliers (the first of which LeBron James is not resting), plus one game against the Raptors before closing the season against the Bucks. A lot has to fall in place, which makes it improbable… but not impossible.
The Nets can get the seventh seed if… It’s complicated, and the various wins and losses could take hundreds of words to explain. Basically, the likely scenarios where they’d earn seventh are: 1) The Bucks stay above them, they out-pace the Celtics, and no one leap-frogs them in the standings; 2) The Celtics out-pace them, the Bucks tumble down below them, and no leap-frogs; 3) One of the Pacers or Heat catch fire and finish the season with an equal (Heat) or better (for the Pacers) record than the Nets, they out-pace the Celtics, and the Bucks stumble.
How likely is it? Likely. The Nets have an easier schedule than the Celtics, and things would have to go just right for them to catch the Bucks. The Heat could win the rest of their games outright, with the Raptors being their biggest challenge. So could the Pacers, who might sneak past the Grizzlies if Memphis rests players. Again, this is a big part of how the Nets control their own destiny: if they take care of business, they won’t have much to worry about.
The Nets can get the eighth seed if… 1) Everything holds as is; 2) the Celtics fall out and either the Pacers or Hornets leap-frog the Nets OR the Heat at least match them, 3) the Celtics & Bucks fall out and two of the above-mentioned teams (Pacers, Hornets, Heat) leap-frog the Nets (or in the Heat’s case, match).
How likely is it? Likelier than the sixth seed, about as likely than the seventh. The Hornets and Pacers are likely out of the playoffs, but the Heat could take a spot if the Nets can’t close out these last four games. The Celtics also hold the ever-important tiebreaker, and it’s very possible that’ll make a difference.
The Nets can fall out of the playoffs if… That crazy five-way tie scenario actually happens, or if the Nets can’t out-pace the Celtics, and get matched by the Heat OR leap-frogged by the Pacers or Hornets.
How likely is it? Like the sixth seed, it’s improbable, but far from impossible. ESPN’s playoff odds list the Nets at a healthy 66 percent; NumberFire is a bit more optimistic at 71.3 percent. That’s certainly better than on the outside looking in, and with a relatively easy schedule compared to their peers, they have the upper hand. It’s just a matter of winning the games.