Bucks post-break playoff hunt primer
As the NBA returns from its All-Star break, the Milwaukee Bucks sit in a prime position to make the playoffs.
But with less than one-third of the season left to play, just exactly where will the Bucks finish and who will they be matched up with?
There appears to be just nine teams vying for the eight playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee is just as close to the No. 3 seed as it is the No. 8.
Of the teams currently slotted third to ninth -- for our purposes we're just going to presume Toronto and Boston will claim the top-two spots; at the very least it is doubtful that Milwaukee catches either (the Bucks are currently seven games in back of No. 2 Boston and nine away from No. 1 Toronto) -- the Bucks have the third-hardest remaining schedule. Philadelphia, which has the easiest slate (based on opponent winning percentage) also has two games in hand on Milwaukee to help make up ground -- and the 76ers are precariously close to the Bucks in the standings.
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Milwaukee can of course help itself as well. The Bucks have seven games against the six teams vying for the 3-8 seeds, with two left each against current No. 5 Indiana and No. 7 Philadelphia.
If the Bucks happen to end in a tie with a team in the standings, well, that's something Milwaukee should try to avoid. The first tiebreaker after head-to-head is division record (used only when tied with a fellow Central team) and then conference record. Milwaukee currently has a 5-6 record against division opponents and 19-17 in the conference.
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THE PLAYOFF HUNT
Early key stretch: We might learn a lot soon. Milwaukee has five games against those other six East playoff contenders beginning next week. The Bucks have back-to-back games Feb. 27-28 vs. Washington and at Detroit, then two days later host Indiana, followed by another back-to-back March 4-5 vs. Philadelphia and at the Pacers. This won't solve anything, but could create a bit more clarity.
Toughest stretch: Out like a lamb? More like a lion. The Bucks end March and begin April with some tough matchups and a four-game road trip out west. From March 25-April 3, the Bucks will host San Antonio then travel to California to play the Clippers, Warriors and Lakers over a four-day span, head to Denver and then play Boston back at home. All of those teams other than the Lakers are above .500 at the break, with three (Golden State, San Antonio and Boston) among the top-three seeds.
Easy stretch: Thankfully, after that rough set of games listed above, Milwaukee will have some very winnable games. From April 5-9, the Bucks will host Brooklyn, play at New York and host Orlando. There's no back-to-back games among those and all three of those teams are fighting for positioning of their own -- in the draft lottery.
Important finale? Milwaukee closes the season at Philadelphia on April 11. Could that game have seeding implications and make a difference on a first-round opponent of say, Boston or Cleveland? Or Cleveland or Washington?
Team fortification: The trading deadline is over, but Milwaukee should get stronger nevertheless. Jabari Parker has played over 18 1/2 minutes just once in six games since returning. He's averaging 19.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per 36 minutes, which is close to his per 36 last season (21.4, 6.5) before tearing his ACL. The Bucks will also get the services of Malcolm Brogdon, likely in late March or early April. He was expected to miss 6-to-8 weeks after tearing his left quadriceps tendon Feb. 1. Brogdon is averaging 13.3 points on 48.7 percent shooting. Both players could be key in a playoff stretch run.
Winning the division doesn't matter: While taking the Central Division title would be a nice honor for Milwaukee and mean the Bucks have a very good record, unlike in the past it no longer gives a team an automatic top-three seed. Before 2016, division winners would get the 1, 2 and 3 seeds and everyone else would be slotted below. That rule changed and now teams are slotted 1-8 by record, regardless of division finish.
The odds: According to the website playoffstatus.com, at the All-Star break the Bucks have a 93 percent chance of making the playoffs. Their most likely seed, according to the site, is at No. 6, with a 20 percent chance of finishing there. Milwaukee is given a 19 percent chance to finish at No. 7, however. Other seed percentages: 1 (less than percent), 2 (1 percent), 3 (6 percent), 4 (15 percent), 5 (17 percent) and 8 (16 percent). The site gives the Raptors an 82 percent chance of having the top seed, the Celtics a 65 percent chance at No. 2 and the Cavaliers a 48 percent chance at No. 3. The 76ers are given a 22 percent chance to end up at No. 4, with the Wizards 21 percent. Philly also edges Washington for the chances at the 5 seed (22 percent to 21 percent) while Miami is given the great chance at both the 7 (22 percent) and 8 (25 percent) seeds.