May 28, 2022

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NBA playoff picture: Tiebreaker scenarios, seeding and everything to know entering final day of regular season

The final day of the 2021-22 NBA regular season is upon us. With just 15 regular season games left on Sunday, we know this: All 20 postseason teams — 12 playoff and eight play-in — have been decided. It’s just a matter of seeding, and a lot is left to be determined there on Sunday. 

Before we get there, on Saturday the Sixers clinched a top-four seed with their win over the Pacers, which locked the Raptors into the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Warriors also moved one step closer to securing the West’s No. 3 seed with a win over San Antonio. Either a Golden State win over New Orleans or a Dallas loss to San Antonio on Sunday will lock the Warriors in to No. 3 and the Mavericks in to No. 4. 

There are also some potential multi-team tiebreaker scenarios for the East’s 2-4 and 7-10 seeds that we outline in detail. Below is where the playoff picture stands entering the final day of regular-season play on Sunday, April 10. 

NOTE: Our SportsLine model, developed by predictive data engineer Stephen Oh, simulates the entire season 10,000 times and is constantly updating to reflect changing circumstances to produce the most unbiased and precise projections imaginable

Eastern Conference

1. Miami Heat

Miami has clinched the No. 1 seed. 

  • Current first-round matchup: TBD (play-in results)

2. Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is one game up on the No. 3 Celtics. The No. 4 Sixers can no longer pass Milwaukee, which owns a one-game lead with one to play and the tiebreaker secured. 

If the Bucks and the Celtics end up in a tie, the Celtics — assuming they stay ahead of Philadelphia for the Atlantic division crown — will have the edge by way of a fourth tiebreaker. 

It goes like this: Head-to-head is the first tiebreaker, and the Boston-Milwaukee season series is tied 2-2. The next tiebreaker goes to a division winner, but at present, both Boston and Milwaukee would be division winners. So it then goes to the conference record: Boston will finish 33-19 against the East, while the Bucks are currently 33-18 with one Eastern Conference opponent left on their schedule (Cleveland). If Milwaukee beats Cleveland, there won’t be a tiebreaker because it will boast a better record than Boston. If Milwaukee loses to Cleveland and Boston beats Memphis, both the Bucks and Celtics would finish with a 33-19 record against the East. 

Which would take it to the fourth tiebreaker: Record against Eastern Conference playoffs teams, and here’s where Boston has already clinched with a mark of 20-13 over Milwaukee’s 17-15 record, pending its final game against Cleveland. 

In the case of a three-way tie between Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia, which remains a possibility, the tiebreaker criteria is to recognize division winners first, which would remove Philadelphia from the equation as Boston would win the Atlantic division via a better division record. Then it would be down to Milwaukee and Boston as division winners, which sends it back to a straight two-team tiebreaker. And as we just went over, Boston would win that tiebreaker via record against East playoff teams, leaving Boston No. 2, Milwaukee No. 3 and Philadelphia No. 4. 

  • Projected seed: 2
  • Current first-round matchup: Nets vs. Cavaliers play-in winner
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 3 Boston: Boston has clinched via record vs. East playoff teams (see above for scenario)
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 4 Philadelphia: Bucks have clinched via 2-1 head-to-head advantage

3. Boston Celtics

The Celtics are one game back of the Bucks with one game remaining (at Memphis). If the Bucks lose their final game to Cleveland and Boston beats Memphis, Boston and Milwaukee would finish tied with a 51-31 record. If the Bucks and Celtics indeed finish tied, kindly scroll up to the Milwaukee section, where the complicated tiebreaker scenario is detailed. 

The Celtics are also tied with the No. 4 Sixers but have clinched the tiebreaker by way of a better Atlantic division record (season series tied 2-2). For Philly to pass Boston, it has to finish a game ahead, requiring a Boston loss at Memphis and a Philly win over Detroit on Sunday. 

In the case of a three-way tie between Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia, which remains a possibility, the tiebreaker criteria is to recognize division winners first, which would remove Philadelphia from the equation as Boston would win the Atlantic division via a better division record. Then it would be down to Milwaukee and Boston as division winners, which sends it back to a straight two-team tiebreaker. And as we just went over, Boston would win that tiebreaker via record against East playoff teams, leaving Boston No. 2, Milwaukee No. 3 and Philadelphia No. 4. 

  • Projected seed: 3
  • Current first-round matchup: Bulls
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 2 Milwaukee: Celtics lead season series 2-1 with one game remaining
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 4 Philadelphia: Celtics have clinched via Atlantic division record (head-to-head tied 2-2)

4. Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers are tied with the No. 3 Celtics and are one back of the No. 2 Bucks, whom Philly can’t pass as the Bucks own both the two-team and multi-team tiebreaker over the Sixers. 

If Philly ends up tied with Boston, the Celtics have also clinched the tiebreaker by way of a better Atlantic division record (season series tied 2-2), meaning the only way the Sixers jump to No. 3 is with a win over the Pistons and a Boston loss to Memphis. 

In the case of a three-way tie between Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia, which remains a possibility, the tiebreaker criteria is to recognize division winners first, which would remove Philadelphia from the equation as Boston would win the Atlantic division via a better division record. Then it would be down to Milwaukee and Boston as division winners, which sends it back to a straight two-team tiebreaker. And as we just went over, Boston would win that tiebreaker via record against East playoff teams, leaving Boston No. 2, Milwaukee No. 3 and Philadelphia No. 4. 

  • Projected seed: 4
  • Current first-round matchup: Raptors
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 2 Boston: Boston has clinched via Atlantic division record
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 3 Milwaukee: Bucks have clinched via 2-1 head-to-head advantage
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 5 Toronto: Raptors have clinched via 3-1 head-to-head advantage

5. Toronto Raptors  

The Raptors are locked into the No. 5 seed. 

  • Current play-in matchup: 76ers

6. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are locked into the No. 6 seed. 

  • Current first-round matchup: Bucks

Current play-in teams

7. Brooklyn Nets  

The Nets are tied with Cleveland and own the tiebreaker entering the final day. If the Nets beat Indiana on Sunday or if the Cavs and Hornets both lose their final game, the Nets will be the No. 7 seed. 

Below would be the tiebreaker finishing order for all possible three-team play-in ties involving Brooklyn:

  • Nets-Hawks-Cavs
  • Nets-Hornets-Cavs
  • Hornets-Nets-Hawks

In the case of a four-team tie between Brooklyn, Cleveland, Atlanta and Charlotte, the finishing order would be: No. 7 Brooklyn, No. 8 Atlanta, No. 9 Charlotte, No. 10 Cleveland via head-to-head records among all teams involved

  • Projected seed: 7
  • Current play-in matchup: Cavaliers
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 8 Cleveland: Nets have clinched via 3-1 head-to-head advantage
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 9 Atlanta: Nets have clinched via 2-1 head-to-head advantage
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 10 Charlotte: Hornets have clinched via 2-1 head-to-head advantage

8. Cleveland Cavaliers 

The Cavaliers are tied with the Nets, but Brooklyn owns the tiebreaker. The Cavs can still finish as No. 7 if Brooklyn loses its final game to Indiana and Cleveland beats Milwaukee on Sunday. 

Cleveland can fall to No. 9 if it loses its final game and Atlanta, which trails the Cavs by one game, wins its final game (Atlanta owns tiebreaker). Cleveland can fall to No. 10 if it loses its final game and Charlotte wins its final game.  

Below would be the tiebreaker finishing order for all possible three-team play-in ties involving Cleveland:

  • Nets-Hawks-Cavs
  • Nets-Hornets-Cavs
  • Hawks-Hornets-Cavs

In the case of a four-team tie between Brooklyn, Cleveland, Atlanta and Charlotte, the finishing order would be: No. 7 Brooklyn, No. 8 Atlanta, No. 9 Charlotte, No. 10 Cleveland via head-to-head records among all teams involved

  • Projected seed: 8
  • Current play-in matchup: Nets
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 7 Brooklyn: Nets lead season series 2-1 with one matchup remaining
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 9 Atlanta: Hawks have clinched via 3-1 head-to-head advantage
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 10 Charlotte: Cavs have clinched via record vs. East playoff teams

9. Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks are tied with the No. 10 Hornets and one back of No. 8 Cleveland and No. 7 Brooklyn with one to play. The Hawks cannot pass Brooklyn, but they can jump Cleveland if they win their final game at Houston and the Cavs lose to Milwaukee. 

Below would be the tiebreaker finishing order for all possible three-team play-in ties involving Atlanta:

  • Nets-Hawks-Cavs
  • Hawks-Hornets-Cavs
  • Hornets-Nets-Hawks

In the case of a four-team tie between Brooklyn, Cleveland, Atlanta and Charlotte, the finishing order would be: No. 7 Brooklyn, No. 8 Atlanta, No. 9 Charlotte, No. 10 Cleveland via head-to-head records among all teams involved

  • Projected seed: 9
  • Current play-in matchup: Cavs
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 7 Brooklyn: Nets have clinched via 2-1 head-to-head advantage
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 8 Cleveland: Atlanta has clinched via 3-1 head-to-head advantage
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 10 Charlotte: Atlanta has clinched via Southeast division record

10. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are tied with the No. 9 Hawks and one back of the No. 8 Cavs and No. 7 Nets with one game remaining. Charlotte can still finish as high as No. 7 if they beat Washington and Brooklyn, Cleveland and Atlanta each lose their final game, or in the case of a three-way tie between Charlotte, Brooklyn and Atlanta, one of the scenarios noted below. 

Below would be the tiebreaker finishing order for all possible three-team play-in ties involving Charlotte:

  • Nets-Hornets-Cavs
  • Hawks-Hornets-Cavs
  • Hornets-Nets-Hawks

In the case of a four-team tie between Brooklyn, Cleveland, Atlanta and Charlotte, the finishing order would be: No. 7 Brooklyn, No. 8 Atlanta, No. 9 Charlotte, No. 10 Cleveland via head-to-head records among all teams involved

  • Projected seed: 10
  • Current play-in matchup: Nets
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 7 Brooklyn: Hornets have clinched via 2-1 head-to-head advantage
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 8 Cleveland: Cavs have clinched via record vs. East playoff teams
  • Two-team tiebreaker vs. No. 9 Atlanta: Atlanta has clinched via Southeast division record

Western Conference

1. Phoenix Suns

Phoenix has clinched the No. 1 overall seed. 

  • Current first-round matchup: TBD (play-in results)  

2. Memphis Grizzlies 

The Grizzlies have clinched the No. 2 seed. 

3. Golden State Warriors

The Warriors enter the final day one game up on No. 4 Dallas. The Warriors play New Orleans, while Dallas plays San Antonio without Luka Doncic. Dallas has the tiebreaker over Golden State, which will secure the No. 3 seed with either win or a Dallas loss. 

  • Projected seed: 3
  • Current first-round matchup: Nuggets
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 4 Mavericks: Dallas has clinched with 3-1 head-to-head advantage

4. Dallas Mavericks 

Dallas is one game back of No. 3 Golden State with one game left (vs. San Antonio). Dallas has the tiebreaker. The Mavericks have clinched a top-four seed. 

  • Projected seed: 4
  • Current first-round matchup: Jazz
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 3 Warriors: Dallas has clinched with a 3-1 head-to-head advantage

5. Utah Jazz 

Utah will clinch the No. 5 seed with a win over Portland or a Denver loss to the Lakers. 

  • Projected seed: 5
  • Current first-round matchup: Mavericks
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 6 Nuggets: Jazz have clinched with a 4-0 head-to-head advantage

6. Denver Nuggets 

The Nuggets need to beat the Lakers and have the Jazz lose to the Blazers to jump to the No. 6 seed, otherwise Denver will be No. 6. 

  • Projected seed: 6
  • Current play-in matchup: Warriors
  • Tiebreaker vs. No. 5 Jazz: Utah has clinched with 4-0 head-to-head advantage

Play-in teams

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves are locked into the No. 7 seed. 

  • Play-in matchup: Clippers

8. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are locked into the No. 8 seed. 

  • Play-in matchup: Timberwolves

9. New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans are locked into the No. 9 seed. 

10. San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are locked into the No. 10 seed. 

  • Play-in matchup: Pelicans