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NBA Playoff Picture: First round series between Wizards and either Cavaliers or 76ers looking more likely

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There’s just a little over three weeks left in the regular season, but there’s still very little separation between the third and eighth-best teams in the Eastern Conference. The eighth-place Heat are only 3.5 games behind the third-place Cavaliers. The sixth-place 76ers are only 1.5 games behind Cleveland.

The Wizards are clinging to fourth, a half-game behind the Cavs. They’re tied with Indiana, but hold the tiebreaker thanks to their win over the Pacers on Saturday.

Most projection systems don’t expect the standings to stay that way. Here’s a quick look at how several projections expect the standings to finish from 3-8:


3. 76ers: 48-34
4 (tie). Wizards and Cavaliers: 47-35
6. Pacers: 46-36
7. Heat: 44-38
8. Bucks 43-39


3 (tie). 76ers, Wizards, and Cavaliers 47-35
6. Pacers: 45-37
7. Heat: 44-38
8. Bucks 43-39


3. 76ers, Wizards, and Cavaliers (tie): 47-35
6. Pacers: 46-36
7. Heat: 44-38
8. Bucks 43-39

Even though the 76ers are currently in sixth, they’re projected to make a big jump thanks to having the easiest remaining schedule in the league. The one game that projects to be something of a toss-up, which differentiates FiveThirtyEight from the other two projections, is the 76ers’ game in Detroit on April 4. However, considering the Pistons’ struggles, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the odds tilt more in Philadelphia’s favor between now and then.

The Pacers, on the other hand, have the fifth-most difficult schedule left. The Wizards and Cavaliers both have fairly average schedules left, including an important head-to-head game in Cleveland on April 5.

It’s looking more and more likely the Wizards will be in a tie with at least one, if not two teams at the end of the season. With that in mind, let’s review the NBA’s tiebreak procedure if two teams wind up tied at the end of the season.

  1. Better winning percentage in games against each other - The Wizards split their season series with the 76ers and are down 2-1 to the Cavaliers. If the Wizards lose April 5 in Cleveland, the Cavs would hold the tiebreaker over Washington. Cleveland currently has a 2-1 lead over Philadelphia with one game left to play in Philly.
  2. Division winner - The Wizards will hold this tiebreaker over the 76ers, unless the Heat go on an incredible run to pass Washington and win the Southeast Division. This tiebreaker wouldn’t help them against Cleveland since they will likely win the Central Division.
  3. Better winning percentage against teams in own division (only if tied teams are in same division) - Not applicable against Philly or Cleveland.
  4. Better winning percentage against teams in own conference - Okay, so it’s way too hard to even try and project how this plays out, but here’s where each team stands at the moment within the conference:

Wizards: 26-18

Home games: Knicks, Hornets, Hawks, and Celtics (Boston will likely be locked into the #2 seed when they meet on April 10. It could be a game where the Celtics rest key players.)
Road games: Pistons, Bulls, Cavaliers, and Magic

Cavaliers: 28-14

Home games: Bucks, Raptors (twice), Wizards, and Knicks
Road games: Nets, Heat, Hornets, 76ers, Knicks

76ers: 24-18

Home games: Hornets, Knicks, Nets, Cavaliers, Bucks
Road games: Magic, Hawks (twice), Hornets, Pistons

If all three teams wind up tied, the procedure is slightly different. Winning a division becomes the first tiebreaker, ahead of head-to-head record, which would eliminate Philadelphia and leave Cleveland and Washington to sort out who gets the third seed. You can view the rest of the tiebreak procedure here.

It’s clear the standings will largely hinge on two games on back-to-back nights: The Wizards’ April 5 game against the Cavaliers in Cleveland, followed by the April 6 meeting between the 76ers and Cavaliers in Philadephia. If the road team can win either of those games, it will put them in a strong position to take the third seed. Otherwise, the third seed could be the 76ers’ to lose, as long as they take care of business against their weak schedule.

The third seed offers plenty of advantages for whoever gets it. They’ll get to face the inexperienced Pacers in the first round, and then they’d get to face the Celtics in the second round. Meanwhile, the fourth seed will have to duke it out with a comparable team and if they survive, face Toronto in the second round.