Boston's odds in the East playoff race just got a lot more interesting

The last ten days have been something of a roller coaster for Boston Celtics fans, alternating between dropping games to the second-worst team in the league with convincing wins against two of the three consensus title contenders, with the second seed seemingly safe, then lost, then tied again.

The race for seeding in the east is taking an unusual turn lately, with the Washington Wizards retooling after a late-season surge produced one of the best recoveries in league history, while the Toronto Raptors, also retooling to address the injury as much as pending free agency of their star point guard Kyle Lowry, have seen their squad fall into a late-season slump, falling out of the top-three seed conversation. At the same time, the Celts are finding their sea legs now that they are (finally) mostly healthy - save a few stinkers - at the same moment injuries are stymieing the Cleveland Cavaliers, alone in first place in the East - for now. 

With JR Smith working his way back from a hand injury while Kevin Love and Andrew Bogut - himself a late addition to add depth for injuries like Love's - are out for the regular season (and in Bogut's case, the post-season as well), the Cavs are reportedly adding veteran big man Larry Sanders for that depth, though Sanders, who hasn't played professionally for two seasons, may take some time to be integrated. There's also the question of whether seeding matters at all for the Cavs, who will likely need as much rest as possible to ready for whatever behemoth rises from the West.

Would a slip to the two or three seed cause the Cavs problems in the second round? Could a slip to the three or four lead to a surprise first-round exit for Boston? Who has a tough schedule left, and who has a cakewalk? Who is more motivated to rest players, how will they do it, and who can't afford to? All these questions and more need answers to get a solid picture of what the seeding race in the East might mean for the playoff picture. It's complicated, and late-season meetings between the Wizards, Cavs and Celtics may make normally meaningless or low-importance matchups have much greater impact.

Currently, stats gurus FiveThirtyEight give Boston the best odds of landing the top seed, based on projected remaining schedule being the weakest in the league. The Cavs and Wizards have relatively difficult remaining schedules, and while the Raptors are somewhere in the middle, the Lowry injury and recent poor play coupled with surges from several teams in the lower end of the East hierarchy makes things murkier. Let's take stock of the situation, and see how things might shake out.


The Cavs would face the Milwaukee Bucks, the Wizards (who hold the tiebreaker over Boston) would face the Detroit Pistons, the Celts would match up with the Indiana Pacers, and the Raptors would play the Atlanta Hawks. The Cavs and Wiz would almost certainly advance, the Celts most likely too (though Indiana is a scary team if Paul George finds his rhythm), and Hawks/Raps is probably a coin flip. The Cavs would have their first test with whoever ended up winning that flip in the second round, but should be OK so long as they are in playoff shape health-wise, but a Wiz/Celts second-round meeting is a lot harder to predict. Thankfully, however, the season does not end today, and several factors may change the seeding picture in the interim. What are some of them?


You can't - at least not yet - project injuries. But you CAN rest players who have been logging heavy minutes or who have recent or recurrent injury issues in the hopes it prevents a key player from going down in the postseason. That can take the shape of scheduled rest, or minutes restrictions (or both) as the teams wind up their regular-season schedule. Teams in the lower three slots really can't give their players nights off if they want to be sure they will avoid the lottery - only five games separate the sixth team (Pacers) from the eleventh (the Charlotte Hornets), but it's not inconceivable teams five through one take a different view of the situation. The Raps and Hawks are three and four games ahead of the Pacers (respectively), and would only risk swapping seeds with an occasional rested starter, and neither seem likely to catch the three seed at 3.5 and 4.5 games back. For the top three teams, however, it gets trickier.

Seeding for the Cavs is probably not as important, given LeBron James' propensity for taking over in the postseason, but rest will be a thing, at least for scheduled wins, as few as they may have left. There's also the issue of integrating Sanders and Deron Williams, another recent pickup, as well as re-integrating Smith and Love, which could cause some issues. Seeding for the Wiz and Celts could spell the difference between a Pistons/ Bucks/ Heat/ Bulls/ Hornets matchup and a team that could realistically beat them in the first round. It could also nab them the first seed and a realistic path to the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Cavs. While both teams have players with injury histories and ongoing or recent minutes restrictions, neither team is in a position to rest players much, save for (again) scheduled wins, of which Boston should easily have the most left...which brings us to the most important factor, the primary driver of FiveThirtyEight's analysis:


Here, let's take a look at what the top three teams in the east have left to sort out, given the Raps and Hawks are probably not going to challenge the teams currently in those slots for the positions they are in, starting with Cleveland. The Cavs have seventeen games left, with challenging games against the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, Wizards, San Antonio Spurs, Boston, Toronto, and the Hawks (twice!) left on the board, with only seven games against sub- .500 teams remaining.  The Wiz also have seventeen games left, with challenging games against Boston, Atlanta, Cleveland, the Clips, Jazz and Warriors and eleven games against sub- .500 clubs. Boston, however, has a mere fifteen games left, with only THREE challenging games on the schedule (WashingtonAtlanta and Cleveland, the latter of which may see the Cavs resting players as it's in the last 10 days of the season), and eleven games against sub- .500 teams remaining.

What this means for Cleveland is rest of some sort will probably be needed, and minutes restrictions on new (and injury-prone) additions will probably combine for a few more unlikely losses to become actual ones, and the murderer's row of Boston-Atlanta-Atlanta-Miami-Toronto that the Cavs close out the regular season with suggests not only rest having to happen at the worst of times matchup-wise, but the real likelihood of dropping one or two of these last five games even if NO players get significant rest. Same with the Wizards - seeding is very important to making a deep run in the postseason (and arguably with free agents in summer in the last year they will likely have cap space for some time), so resting players seems unlikely before the team's own murderer's row of Clippers-Jazz-Warriors to finish out March. The Wiz may sit players after that, though, given no teams left in the last five games has a winning record.

However, first-place seeding position could be decided by the outcome of Boston's back-to-back against the Cavs and Hawks in the first week of April, depending on whether those teams decide to rest their older star players for a playoff push or not. That in itself may have as much to do with who it seems likely the one and two seeds will be facing as it is the record of Boston, Washington and Cleveland by that point, so for now at least, the field for the top seed is still wide open for those three teams. Only time will tell, but it's shaping up to be a hell of a ride.

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Top image via FiveThirtyEight
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