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Taking stock of the Eastern Conference playoff chase

With one week left in the season, things are still wide open.

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks let an opportunity slip away with a road loss to the Indiana Pacers on Thursday evening. However, that defeat was offset, at least in part, by a rousing win over the Phoenix Suns just 24 hours earlier, and the Hawks face the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, at least by winning percentage.

With that as the backdrop, there are numerous scenarios still in play for the Hawks ranging from the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round to a (very) remote scenario in which Atlanta could slip into the play-in tournament. In this space, we’ll sift through what’s left on the schedule when it comes to the race for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

The top three

At times, there was some (admittedly faint) hope that the Hawks could end with a flourish and creep into the mix for the top three. That is no longer a possibility, with the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks clinching top-three seeds.

Philadelphia is in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed with a three-game edge (as of May 8) over Brooklyn and Milwaukee. From there, the Nets and Bucks are locked in a tie, but the Bucks hold the tiebreaker and, by proxy, the advantage when looking to claim the No. 2 spot.

Speaking of tiebreakers...

The Tiebreakers

Let’s start with two-team tiebreakers and, in 2020-21, this is a very easy one to decipher. Because every team will play exactly three games against each Eastern Conference opponent, the two-team tiebreaker is very simple.

The team that wins the season series holds the tiebreaker advantage.

Now, the three-team scenarios are much more difficult, to the point where it isn’t as easy to project without full results. As a refresher, here is the criteria, in order of importance.

Three Team Tiebreakers

  1. Division winner — This applies across the board, even if tied teams are not in the same division
  2. Best head-to-head winning percentage among all teams tied
  3. Highest winning percentage within division (if teams are in the same division)
  4. Highest winning percentage against Eastern Conference teams
  5. Highest winning percentage against playoff teams in Eastern Conference
  6. Best point differential

Okay, with that out of the way, here is a team-by-team glance, with projections accurate as of Saturday, May 8.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks are in the best position, even with a half-game deficit in the standings at the time of this post. Most (if not all) projection systems give Atlanta at least a slight edge, based heavily on tiebreakers and the ease — at least on paper — of the remaining schedule

It should be noted that the Washington Wizards are a blistering 14-4 in their last 18 games, though, and the two games against Washington are not as friendly as once thought. At the same time, both the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic are playing out the string, and the Hawks do not have to travel anymore this season.

Making things even more interesting, Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan has indicated on back-to-back days that De’Andre Hunter practiced in full on Saturday, with the potential of a return on Monday. He may need time to reach game speed, but Hunter’s possible deployment makes things even more interesting for Atlanta.

New York Knicks

  • Current record: 37-30
  • Remaining schedule: @ LAC, @ LAL, vs. SA, vs. CHA, vs. BOS
  • Two-team tiebreaker wins: Hawks
  • Two-team tiebreaker losses: Heat
  • Two-team tiebreaker TBD: Celtics, Hornets
  • FiveThirtyEight projection: 39-33, No. 5 seed
  • Basketball-Reference projections: 39.6 wins, 90.8% chance to avoid play-in

The Knicks are an awesome story. They are playing better basketball than anyone could’ve imagined this season and, at this moment, New York is in control with the fewest losses outside of the top three.

With that said, the Knicks have a pretty grueling schedule, with road tilts against the Clippers and Lakers and no “easy” matchups at all. New York could still outpace expectations again but, as you can see, they are projected to finish either 2-3 or 3-2, depending on the model. New York does have the two-team tiebreaker over Atlanta, though, and the Hawks may need some help from the Knicks as a result.

Miami Heat

  • Current record: 36-31
  • Remaining schedule: @ BOS, @ BOS, vs. PHI, @ MIL, @ DET
  • Two-team tiebreaker wins: Knicks
  • Two-team tiebreaker losses: Hawks, Hornets
  • Two-team tiebreaker TBD: Celtics
  • FiveThirtyEight projection: 38-34, No. 7 seed (tied)
  • Basketball-Reference projections: 38.0 wins, 42.2% chance to avoid play-in

Miami isn’t the only team that has disappointed this season — see Boston below — but they are at least seemingly finding their stride. The Heat are 8-3 in the last 11 games and, because of their experience and recent success with an NBA Finals appearance in 2020, Miami is theoretically dangerous.

On the flip side, they are a half-game behind the Hawks and Atlanta holds the tiebreaker. Miami also has the hardest schedule of the bunch, with two road tilts in Boston and two games against top teams in Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

Boston Celtics

  • Current record: 35-32
  • Remaining schedule: vs. MIA, vs. MIA, @ CLE, @ MIN, @ NYK
  • Two-team tiebreaker wins: Hornets
  • Two-team tiebreaker losses: Hawks
  • Two-team tiebreaker TBD: Heat, Knicks
  • FiveThirtyEight projection: 38-34, No. 7 seed (tied)
  • Basketball-Reference projections: 38.1 wins, 67.9% chance to avoid play-in

Boston has some big games coming and there isn’t a ton to be confident in with the way the Celtics are playing. They are just 4-6 in the last 10, including double-digit losses to Portland and Chicago in the last week. Boston is certainly punching below their projected weight, and they are 1.5 games behind Atlanta.

The Celtics do have a big opportunity with three games remaining against Miami (twice) and New York, plus favorable matchups against Cleveland and Minnesota. We’ll see if they can respond.

Charlotte Hornets

  • Current record: 33-34
  • Remaining schedule: vs. NOP, vs. DEN, vs. LAC, @ NYK, @ WAS
  • Two-team tiebreaker wins: Hawks, Heat
  • Two-team tiebreaker losses: Celtics
  • Two-team tiebreaker TBD: Knicks
  • FiveThirtyEight projection: 35-37, No. 8 seed
  • Basketball-Reference projections: 35.0 wins, 0.8% chance to avoid play-in

It is very unlikely that the Hornets can avoid the play-in, but they aren’t totally dead, so we have to include them here. It would very likely take an undefeated stretch run for Charlotte to make noise, but they have a pair of tiebreaker advantages — including over the Hawks — that could come into play in a wild scenario.

In the end, the Hawks are in a strong position. Assuming semi-reasonable health, Atlanta will be favored in each remaining game. Even when giving deserved credit to the red-hot Wizards, the Hawks project to be substantial favorites in their final two contests.

Practically speaking, the Hawks would need to tumble considerably to end up in the play-in but, of course, a trip to the 4/5 series is preferable. In terms of recent performance, it would be tough to argue against Atlanta as the hottest team involved in the race, and with the help of a 23-11 record in the last 34 games, the Hawks can make things very comfortable with a 3-1 or 4-0 finish.

Stay tuned.