HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Friday marks the 3/4 mark of the 2012-13 season. Teams have played an average of 61 games, with 21 to go. What better time for a Q & A, where the Qs and As come from the same source?
1. Who will be the No. 1 overall seed, with home-court advantage through The Finals?
The Heat’s winning streak has to come to an end at some point, but it has already put them even with the Spurs in the loss column. And Miami has the easiest remaining schedule in the league, according to cumulative opponent winning percentage. Their six remaining back-to-backs ultimately make their schedule a little tougher than that of a couple of other teams, but it’s still much easier than that of the Spurs or the Thunder.
2. Who wins the West?
The Spurs have a two-game edge in the loss column, but don’t have Tony Parker for the next four weeks. The Thunder play easier opponents, but the Spurs play 13 of their final 20 games at home and have fewer back-to-backs (3 vs. 6).
OKC’s trump card is two games against the Spurs in the next month. They play Monday in San Antonio and April 4 in Oklahoma City. With Parker out, you’d have to give the Thunder the advantage in both matchups. Oklahoma City also has the advantage in the conference record tiebreaker should they split the final two meetings.
3. Will the Lakers make the playoffs?
Flip a coin again.
L.A. is just two games in the loss column behind the Jazz and seemingly has the momentum to make the playoffs.
L.A. also has the easier remaining schedule. Ten of their final 20 games are against teams over .500 and their remaining opponents have a cumulative winning percentage of just .484, the second-lowest mark in the Western Conference. The Jazz play 12 of their final 21 games against winning teams, and their remaining opponents have a cumulative winning percentage of .537, the third-highest mark in the West.
But Utah has the tiebreaker, having won the season series, 2-1. So the Lakers have to lose three fewer games than the Jazz over the final six weeks. Furthermore, though the Lakers are 10-5 over their last 15 games and the Jazz are 7-8, Utah has actually had a better point differential (NetRtg: +2.1) than L.A. (NetRtg: +0.0) in that time. While the Lakers have won a lot of close games in the last month, the Jazz have lost a lot of close ones. So, the momentum isn’t as strong as it may seem.
Both teams have three back-to-backs remaining, but Utah has one additional game (5 vs. 4) against teams on the second night of a back-to-back.
4. Shouldn’t we include Golden State and Houston in this conversation?
No. The Warriors have lost 10 of their last 15 games, but they still have four fewer losses than the Lakers and play 14 of their final 20 games at home. And they’re struggles have primarily come on the road. They’ve won eight of their last nine at Oracle Arena. They only have three back-to-backs remaining and play five opponents on the second night of a back-to-back. When you factor all that in, the Warriors have the easiest remaining schedule in the West.
Factoring in home/road and back-to-backs, Houston has the second easiest remaining schedule in the West, with 12 of its final 20 games at home. The Rockets also have the ninth best point differential in the league overall and sixth best (along with the No. 1 offense) over the last 15 games. They’re better than their record says they are.
If the Lakers grab a playoff spot, it’s the one that belongs to the Jazz.
5. Who gets the 2 seed in the East?
The Pacers have the momentum. They’re 11-4 over their last 15 games, outscoring their opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions. They’ve maintained their league-best defense, and have the league’s seventh best offense since late January. The Knicks are 8-7 over their last 15, with a differential (NetRtg) of 2.7 points per 100 possessions.
The Pacers also have the easier schedule. Compared to the rest of the league, both Indy and New York have a relatively tough remaining schedule, with three more road games than home games. But the Pacers play slightly easier opponents and they have one fewer back-to-back (6 vs. 7).
The Pacers also have a wild card in Danny Granger, who can help them if he can put his knee soreness behind him. Of course, the Knicks are basically a wild card every time they take the floor, essentially living and dying by the three. They’re 28-5 when they shoot better than 36 percent from beyond the arc and 9-17 when they don’t.
So if they get hot again, they’ve got a chance, because the two teams meet for the fourth and final time in New York on April 14.
6. How do East seeds 4-8 shake out?
A fourth team in the East is going to get home-court advantage in the first round and a fifth team is going to avoid the Miami/Indiana/New York trio. But if the five teams that currently have between 26 and 29 losses have dreams of making the conference finals, they’d probably prefer to be a 6 or 7 seed. That puts you on the half of the bracket opposite the Heat.
The Celtics have the momentum. They’re 11-4 over their last 15 games, with a NetRtg of +5.3. Atlanta is hanging in there at 8-7 in its last 15 with a NetRtg of +1.9. The Nets (8-7, -2.4), Bucks (6-9, -3.2) and Bulls (6-9, -4.9) all have negative point differentials over their last 15 games.
None of the five teams have a particularly easy or tough schedule. Atlanta might be in the best shape, even though it has seven remaining back-to-backs and its remaining opponents have a cumulative winning percentage of .504, highest among this group. They also have nine games against teams playing the second night of a back-to-back, most in the league.
Brooklyn has relatively easy opponents (second lowest cumulative winning percentage in the league), but plays 13 of its final 21 games on the road and has eight remaining back-to-backs.
Derrick Rose, of course, is a wild card The shorthanded Bulls seem to be running out of gas, but could obviously get a boost from the return of their point guard … if that ever happens.
With five teams in the mix, tiebreakers are mostly in the air. Five of the 10 season series between this group are done, and three of those resulted in 2-2 ties. But the Bulls did win the season series (2-1) over the Hawks and the Bucks won the season series (3-1) over the Celtics.
If any tie-breaker comes down to conference record, the Nets (26-12) are in good shape, while the Celtics (19-16) are not.
So here’s a guess:
6. Brooklyn (Knicks-Nets in the first round!)
7. How much does home-court advantage really matter?
It matters, but maybe not that much.
The team with home-court advantage has won 111 (74 percent) of the 150 playoff series over the last 10 years. But that team is almost always the better team.
The team with home-court advantage in a 4-5, first-round series (that is presumably more evenly matched than most other series) has won just 55 percent (11 out of 20) of those series in the last 10 years (since the league changed the first round to a best-of-seven).
The team with home-court advantage in a 2-3, conference semifinals series has won 59 percent (13 out of 22) of those series in the last 15 years.
8. Does late-season success carry over into the playoffs?
Sometimes, yes. But over the 10 seasons previous to the lockout, there was no real correlation between improvement in the final quarter of the regular season and success in the playoffs (or overachieving given a team’s record/seed).
The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons acquired Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline, went into the playoffs with a ton of momentum (they won 20 of their final 24 games) and went on to shock the Lakers in The Finals.
The following season, the Spurs went without Tim Duncan for most of the final month and won just nine of their final 17 games, getting crushed in a few of those losses. Then they won 14 of their first 18 playoff games and outlasted the Pistons in a seven-game Finals. That same season, the New Jersey Nets won 15 of their final 19 games to grab the eighth spot in the East, and they promptly got swept in the first round.
There was a much stronger correlation between playoff success and what a team did over the course of the entire regular season than what it did in the final 21 games.