2018 NBA Playoff Tiebreak Scenarios: Last Day of the Season!

Wednesday night, the NBA tips off a slate of games to close out the regular season. The playoffs are finally upon us.

And the standings, especially in the Western Conference? They’re still a hot mess, with every slot from 3 through 9 up for grabs. Only the Rockets and Warriors are locked into their seed; everyone else is fighting for position.

Meanwhile, things are a bit quieter in the East, where the Raptors (1), Celtics (2), and Pacers (5) are locked into their seeds, while Philly and Cleveland are fighting for 3 and 4 and the Wizards, Heat, and Bucks are grappling for 6, 7, and 8. And since we covered all those scenarios before (http://paceandspacehoops.com/sorting-out-2018-nba-east-playoffs-tiebreakers/), I won’t cover them again. Suffice to say that Cleveland has the tiebreaker in a two-team tiebreak with Philly so the Sixers need to win out to claim third unless the Cavs lose to the Knicks at home.

Now, on to the Western Conference.

Utah plays Golden State Tuesday then has to travel to Portland to take on the Blazers in a winner-take-all game for the three seed. In case of multiple-team tiebreakers, division winners automatically get the top seed that’s under consideration, so even if the Jazz lose to the Warriors, they’re third if they beat Portland by virtue of winning the Northwest Division.

Plus, Denver plays Minnesota in the frozen northlands: the winner makes the playoffs. The loser goes home.

Those are the only certainties.

San Antonio cannot tie New Orleans; they play each other and have identical records heading into the game.Winner can finish as high as fourth; loser can finish as low as eighth, depending on the scenario. It’s a pretty big ballgame.

So, now for the if-then scenarios, and there are a LOT of them. Let’s just go by team, starting with the head-to-head records for every team against every other team 3-9 through games of April 9:

Team

Vs. POR

UTA

NOP

SAS

OKC

MIN

DEN

Div.

Conf.

POR

1-2

2-2

1-2

4-0

2-2

1-3

8-7

30-21

UTA

2-1

3-1

3-1

1-3

2-2

2-2

7-8

33-17

NOP

2-2

1-3

2-1

2-1

0-4

1-2

8-7

26-25

SAS

2-1

1-3

1-2

2-2

2-1

2-2

9-6

29-22

OKC

0-4

3-1

1-2

2-2

1-3

1-3

5-11

27-24

MIN

2-2

2-2

4-0

1-2

3-1

2-1

9-6

33-18

DEN

3-1

2-2

2-1

2-2

3-1

1-2

9-6

28-23

From this, you have everything you need to figure out any tiebreaker scenario you can imagine, since the playoff tiebreaker rules are as follows:

  1. Division winner (supersedes all other tiebreakers, applies only in UTA-POR case since HOU and GSW are not part of this group.)

  2. Head-to-head record against other teams in the tiebreaker

  3. Division record in all teams are in same division

  4. Conference record

  5. Conference record against other playoff teams in same conference

  6. Point differential

There are no combinations of wins and losses between these teams that would lead to a fifth-level tiebreaker; every team’s conference record is sufficiently unique that a tie between them would be broken sooner (Denver and San Antonio could finish with the same conference record, 29-23, but the Nuggets have both the head-to-head tiebreak with the Spurs and a sufficient head-to-head record against teams with whom they could be tied—Oklahoma City and Utah—that in the event it comes down to a head-to-head grid, the Nuggets would beat the Spurs in all such scenarios.)

So, to Summarize:

Two games are winner-take-all in the true sense; Utah and Portland are fighting over third and Minnesota and Denver are fighting over making the playoffs at all.

Another game, Spurs-Pelicans, has tremendous implications for each team involved and sets the stage for multiple-layer tiebreakers.

There will be a couple of multiple-way ties possibly involving as many as four teams; refer to the grid and cobble together the tiebreakers with the information provided. To spell them out would take 10,000 words.

All of this gets complicated depending on who wins the Jazz-Warriors game, but it’s ultimately of little consequence for Utah so they may punt it to get ready for the SEGABABA that means everything.

No team can try to tank its way into sixth or seventh to avoid Houston without risking ending up fifth or eighth.

Denver can still finish as high as sixth but they have to win their last game.

And this is gods-awful confusing but holy hell will it ever make for a fantastic night of basketball.