The Milwaukee Bucks climbed out of a 23-point deficit and into the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed for the second straight season.
Milwaukee clinched the conference's top playoff position with a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday. The Bucks' All-Stars, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, keyed the comeback with 33 points apiece.
Since the Los Angeles Lakers have locked up the Western Conference, the top seeds are off the table. But there's plenty to sort out behind them, so we'll play the role of soothsayer and predict how the playoff field will shake out.
Current NBA Standings
1. z-Milwaukee Bucks (55-14)
2. x-Toronto Raptors (49-18)
3. x-Boston Celtics (45-23)
4. x-Miami Heat (43-26)
5. x-Indiana Pacers (42-27)
6. x-Philadelphia 76ers (41-27)
7. Brooklyn Nets (32-36)
8. Orlando Magic (32-37)
9. Washington Wizards (24-44)
1. z-Los Angeles Lakers (51-17)
2. x-Los Angeles Clippers (46-22)
3. x-Denver Nuggets (45-24)
4. x-Houston Rockets (43-25)
5. x-Utah Jazz (43-25)
6. x-Oklahoma City Thunder (42-25)
7. x-Dallas Mavericks (41-30)
8. Memphis Grizzlies (32-37)
9. Portland Trail Blazers (32-38)
10. Phoenix Suns (30-39)
11. San Antonio Spurs (29-38)
12. Sacramento Kings (29-39)
13 New Orleans Pelicans (29-39)
*x = clinched playoff berth.
z = clinched conference.
Predicted Final Standings
1. Milwaukee Bucks
2. Toronto Raptors
3. Boston Celtics
4. Philadelphia 76ers
5. Miami Heat
6. Indiana Pacers
7. Orlando Magic
8. Brooklyn Nets
The biggest drama comes from the gridlock between the fourth and sixth seeds.
The Heat are in the driver's seat with a one-game edge on the Indiana Pacers and 1.5-game lead on the Philadelphia 76ers. Miami also won its season series with Philadelphia and would capture its series against Indiana by winning one of the two games these teams will play inside the bubble.
This should be the Heat's spot to lose, yet our crystal ball likes Philadelphia. Why? Because we either haven't learned our lesson about trusting the Sixers' superior talent to prevail or we'll eventually be proved correct for keeping patient with this loaded roster.
Granted, the fact that Philly hasn't figured things out yet might mean it's a moment that never happens. The Sixers are also facing an indefinite period without Ben Simmons, who exited Wednesday's win over the Washington Wizards early with a knee injury.
But the loss of Simmons puts more of the offensive burden on Joel Embiid, and following the lead of a three-time All-Star and 24.2-points-per-game career scorer is never a bad option. He could even be more productive than usual since the system should be catered to his strengths.
Philly has the talent to pull this off, and when it comes to projections, betting on talent is typically the smart play. The Sixers might be sixth in the standings, but FiveThirtyEight gives them a 10 percent chance of winning the title (tied for fourth-highest overall). The Heat and Pacers both have less than a 1 percent chance of reaching the Finals, let alone win it.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Los Angeles Clippers
3. Denver Nuggets
4. Houston Rockets
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
6. Utah Jazz
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Portland Trail Blazers
Maybe NBA Commissioner Adam Silver should look into the intersection of the fourth, fifth and sixth seeds, because that's where the worst congestion is in this conference too.
The Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz sport identical records, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have just as many losses and only one less win. Separating these teams might come down to luck, but we're again betting on skills.
Houston, paced by former MVPs James Harden and Russell Westbrook, is the team tied with Philadelphia on a 10 percent chance of winning the title with FiveThirtyEight. Oklahoma City and Utah, meanwhile, each have less than a 1 percent chance of reaching the championship round.
Since the remaining schedules are similar—each club's remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage between .510 and .526, per Tankathon—this race could come down to star power. There, it's easiest to trust Harden and Westbrook to rise to the occasion. And the Jazz don't have a difference-maker quite on the same level as Chris Paul (sixth overall in real plus-minus, per ESPN).
Finally, the Phoenix Suns deserve credit for making us think at the No. 8 spot. They have been as good as anyone inside the bubble, running up a 4-0 record despite facing playoff participants in three of those contests.
But they are still fighting an uphill battle that we don't see them winning. The Portland Trail Blazers have been a force in their own right—3-1, with their only loss being a four-point defeat to the Boston Celtics—and Damian Lillard is playing at a level few ever reach, averaging 31.3 points and 11.3 assists through his first four games inside the bubble.