|Race for top seed in Eastern Conference takes shape||03.22.11 at 2:34 pm ET|
A few weeks ago, the Celtics were in the driver’s seat for the best record in the Eastern Conference. After beating the Suns on March 2, their record stood at 44-15, three games ahead of the Bulls. Things changed quickly, as the Celtics went 3-4 over the next two weeks, while the Bulls reeled off eight straight wins to take a momentary lead.
The Celtics got themselves back on track with comeback wins against New Orleans and New York, and now with 13 games left in the regular season, the Celtics and Bulls are tied again at 50-9 heading into Chicago’s game with the Hawks on Tuesday night.
In examining the remaining schedule, the Celtics have a slightly tougher slate of games ‘ but they own two tiebreakers. First, they have gone 2-1 against Chicago with the final matchup scheduled for April 7 at the United Center. If the Celtics win that game, they’ll own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Even if they lose, they currently have a better conference record (33-6) than Chicago (30-9), which is the next tiebreaker.
The Celtics are on record as saying that health is their primary focus, not getting homecourt. Yet with 13 games left it remains a possibility and there is incentive. At stake is homecourt advantage as well as the benefit of playing a sub-500 team in the first round and avoiding a semifinal matchup with Miami.
Here’s how the schedule break down:
Home: 6 (Memphis, Philadelphia, Toronto, Phoenix, Boston, New Jersey)
Road: 7 (Atlanta, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, Orlando, New York)
Back-to-backs: 4 (Two second games at home against Toronto and New Jersey and two on the road against Milwaukee and Cleveland).
Playoff opponents: 6
Home: Memphis, Philadelphia, Boston
Road: Atlanta, Orlando, New York
Toughest stretch: After they play the Celtics on April 7, the Bulls have three games on the road against Cleveland, Orlando and New York before finishing the regular season at home against New Jersey. There are two back-to-backs against the Cavs and Nets.
Home: 6 (Memphis, Charlotte, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, New York)
Road: 7 (Minnesota, Indiana, San Antonio, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Miami)
Back-to-backs: 4 (One second game at home against Washington and three on the road against Indiana, Atlanta and Washington).
Playoff opponents: 7
Home: Memphis, Philadelphia, New York
Road: San Antonio, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami
Toughest stretch: There are actually two. The first is a four-game road trip that has two sets of back-t0-backs with Minnesota and Indiana followed by San Antonio and Atlanta. The second starts with the Bulls game and is followed by a back-to-back at home against Washington on Friday and then a trip to Miami for a Sunday afternoon game with yet another back-to-back against the Wizards, this time in Washington.
How many wins over the final 13 games will it take to clinch the East? Various projection models have it at 59, which would mean going 9-4 down the stretch. Justin Kubatko’s forecast at Basketball-Reference has the Bulls with a 57.4 percent probability of getting the top seed and he has the Celtics at 35.4 percent going into Tuesday night’s games. The Heat have a slim 7 percent chance. Based on the schedule, and also the Celtics stated intentions to not go all out for the top seed, the Bulls have to be considered the favorites but that can change in a week.