Can the Celtics take the East's #1 seed? An analysis of their remaining schedule

We're officially at the final leg of the NBA season, and with 17 games left on their schedule, the Boston Celtics find themselves 1.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors. The next closest team is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are 8.5 games back at the moment, so I think it's fair to say that the top seed in the playoffs will surely either belong to Boston or Toronto.

The two top-dogs both have difficult schedules ahead of them, and will face various challenges in the coming weeks. I've organized their remaining opponents into three categories based on where those teams stand right now in their respective conference standings:

1. The good teams who are sure to make the playoffs.
2. The bubble teams who are still battling for their spot.
3. The bad teams, who frankly, have no shot.

The Eastern Conference seeds are basically set, as the ninth place Detroit Pistons find themselves five entire games behind that last playoff spot. The Charlotte Hornets are one game behind them. While both Detroit and Charlotte are likely to miss this year's playoffs, I've still considered them bubble teams. There's a very slight chance that they clinch.

Toronto Raptors (1) 4517.726111.9103.38.09
Boston Celtics (2) 4520.6921.5104.4100.13.98
Cleveland Cavaliers (3) 3726.5878.5110.1109.80.12
Indiana Pacers (4) 3727.5789.0106.4104.80.86
Washington Wizards (5) 3628.56310.0107.0105.41.32
Philadelphia 76ers (6) 3428.54811.0107.5105.62.36
Milwaukee Bucks (7) 3430.53112.0104.7105.1-0.52
Miami Heat (7) 3430.53112.0101.8102.0-0.37
Detroit Pistons (9) 2935.45317.0102.9104.1-1.09
Charlotte Hornets (10) 2836.43818.0106.4106.70.08
New York Knicks (11) 2440.37522.0104.1107.0-2.92
Chicago Bulls (12) 2142.33324.5103.1109.4-5.77
Atlanta Hawks (13) 2044.31326.0103.8108.2-4.64
Orlando Magic (13) 2044.31326.0105.4109.7-4.23
Brooklyn Nets (13) 2044.31326.0105.8109.9-4.15

The West is much more tightly packed. The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors lead the pack by a hefty margin, but after that, the competition gets close. The five spots after the Rockets and Warriors are all within 1.5 games of each other, and three of those teams are tied at 13 games back. Realistically, all of these teams are on the bubble, as anyone could streak their way to a top 4 position at any time, but the teams that I categorized as true bubble squads come after the first seven seeds. The currently eighth seeded Denver Nuggets, the ninth spotted Los Angeles Clippers, and the tenth place Utah Jazz can all still battle their way to a playoff spot and are undoubtedly on the playoff bubble.

Houston Rockets (1) 4913.790114.0105.28.53
Golden State Warriors (2) 4914.7780.5116.1107.68.61
Portland Trail Blazers (3) 3826.59412.0105.3103.41.54
New Orleans Pelicans (4) 3626.58113.0112.3111.60.67
San Antonio Spurs (5) 3727.57813.0102.399.42.41
Minnesota Timberwolves (6) 3828.57613.0109.7107.02.62
Oklahoma City Thunder (7) 3728.56913.5106.6103.82.51
Denver Nuggets (8) 3528.55614.5108.7107.51.31
Los Angeles Clippers (9) 3428.54815.0109.1108.01.06
Utah Jazz (10) 3430.53116.0102.7101.02.18
Los Angeles Lakers (11) 2835.44421.5108.3110.0-1.60
Sacramento Kings (12) 2044.31330.099.2107.0-7.44
Dallas Mavericks (13) 1945.29731.0102.2105.1-2.36
Phoenix Suns (14) 1947.28832.0104.7113.3-8.41
Memphis Grizzlies (15) 1845.28631.598.9103.5-4.05

Every other team, from the New York Knicks in the East and the Los Angeles Lakers in the West, downward, are considered bad teams with no chance at making it to the playoffs. 

So, let's take a look at who the Raptors and Celtics will have to face off against before the regular season closes. We'll start with the Raps. 

Toronto has twenty games to play, and six of them are crucial games against Eastern teams who will be attempting to take a few games away from their Conference's leader. Those six games will be against the second seeded Celtics, the third seeded Cavaliers, and the fourth seeded Indiana Pacers. The Raptors will have to play each of those teams twice, which could drastically affect positioning in the standings. 

Of their twenty remaining games, Toronto will face off against playoff teams in nine games (Celtics x2, Cavs x2, Pacers x2, Rockets, Thunder, Heat). That totals to 45% of their games being against teams who are already slotted to be in the playoffs

They will also play 4 bubble teams (Clipper, Nuggets, Pistons x2), which equates to 20% of their schedule, and 7 bad teams (Hawks, Knicks, Nets x2, Mavs, Magic x2), which is 35% of their schedule. 

The stat that sticks out to me for the Raptors is their games against teams that have a win percentage greater than .600. There are only four of them in the league, two from each Conference: the Rockets, Warriors, Celtics, and themselves, the Raptors. Toronto will play in three games against teams who have won at least 60% of their games: The Rockets, and the Celtics twice. That's a tough draw to round off the season. 

Final tally: 

Playoff games: 9, 45%
Bubble games: 4, 20%
Bad teams: 7, 35%
Win percentage > .550: 8, 40%
Win percentage > .575: 7, 35%
Win percentage > .580: 5, 25%
Win percentage > .600: 3, 15%

The Celtics have a similar schedule to look forward to in their last 17 games, which begins with a brutal stretch of facing off against six playoff teams in their next seven games. They'll play against the Timberwolves, Pacers, Wizards, Pelicans, Thunder, and Blazers, with their only 'break' coming against the Magic midway through the stretch. 

After that, the schedule doesn't lighten up too much, because in their final 17 games, the Cs will play in ten games against playoff teams. That's 59% of their remaining schedule being played against teams who are almost certain to have already clinched a playoff spot

Nine of those games will be against teams with a win percentage greater than .550, which totals to 53% of their games coming against proven competition

The Cs will also face 1 bubble team, the Utah Jazz, and 6 bad teams (Magic, Kings, Suns, Bulls, Hawks, Nets). 

Final tally: 

Playoff games: 10, 59%
Bubble games: 1, 6%
Bad teams: 6, 35%
Win percentage > .550: 9, 53%
Win percentage > .575: 6, 35%
Win percentage > .580: 4, 24%
Win percentage > .600: 2, 12%

By the numbers, it seems like the Celtics and Raptors have very similar schedules heading into the playoffs, but I think that the pressure lies upon the Raptors' shoulders. They'll have to face off against their fiercest rivals in six of their remaining games, and then will have to take on the Houston Rockets. Good luck with that! (sarcasm) 

Of course, anything can happen in the league's final stretch. At the least, we know that we have some good games to look forward to. 

I'll have a post about the Cavaliers and their chances of rising or falling in the standings before the season ends up tomorrow. Twill be an interesting few weeks, indeed. 

Photo: Boston Herald