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The playoff seeding frenzy

Three games remain for the C’s and their top rivals. What are the tiebreakers that dictate who winds up where?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a pretty big believer in a simple concept when it comes to sports: controlling your own destiny is always the best course of action.

With three games remaining in the regular season for the Boston Celtics, playoff scenarios and seeding in the Eastern Conference remain a fluid process. Entering Wednesday night’s battle with the Chicago Bulls, the C’s are in a three-way tie for second in the East with the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. All three teams are 49-30 and trail the top-seeded Miami Heat by 2.5 games. With Miami only needing one victory to clinch home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs (and with two opportunities to get it), their spot seems pretty secure.

Thanks to the NBA reworking the rules of playoff structure by adding the play-in tournament for those seeded 7 thru 10, there is an added incentive to gaining the 2-seed. The advantage of rest over your opponent is apparent, albeit if that’s only one game. There’s also the possibility of seeing a lesser foe as the system allows for more teams to vie for a first-round series.

The Celtics indeed hold their own fate in their hands. Win out and the second seed is theirs. The first tiebreaker, over the Philadelphia 76ers, is complex but ultimately owned by Boston. The two teams split their four regular-season meetings, though the Celtics have a better record against their Atlantic Division neighbors, the next metric to consider. Should the C’s and Sixers finish the weekend with the same record, Boston will earn both the division crown and a higher seed.

The Celtics and Bucks are in a more complex situation. The two teams face off in a pivotal battle on Thursday night — the second game of a back-to-back for the Celtics. Boston has won two of their three meetings this year; a third would clinch the tiebreaker for the Bucks and give them a boost in the standings. A Bucks win would draw the season series even, to which point we’d look at conference record to determine playoff seeding.

If the Celtics want to win the tiebreaker from the Bucks, they really need to win Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Bulls. It’s Boston’s last against an Eastern Conference opponent (other than the Bucks), and a win over both teams would not just push the Celtics up in the standings but earn them 34 wins in-conference, a mark neither Milwaukee or Philadelphia could match. In essence, win both Wednesday and Thursday and the Celtics are sitting in great control over the 2-seed.

What would prevent them from clinching that 2-seed in that scenario? If the Celtics go 2-1, with a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, and the Philadelphia 76ers go 3-0. Philly has, in theory, the easiest schedule remaining of the three teams, with two home contests against the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers to close out the weekend.

The head-to-head contest with Milwaukee is a huge deal. Since the Bucks have the Pistons and Cavs on final nights, it stands a good chance the Bucks will at least be slotted ahead of the Celtics in the playoff standings if Milwaukee wins Thursday.

In the event the Sixers and Bucks are tied, the Bucks own the tiebreaker and would leapfrog Philly in the seeding. That means that, if the C’s are the 2-seed and the Bucks and Sixers each go 2-1 down the stretch, Milwaukee would be Boston’s likely second-round opponent. With the Sixers losing both tiebreakers, the pressure is really on them to go 3-0 if they want the second seed.

Look... the numbers and possibilities can be mind-numbing to consider. Let’s boil it down to what we can most simply:

Boston goes 3-0

  • Clinch the 2-seed
  • If Celtics and Sixers go 3-0: Celtics 2 seed, Sixers 3, Bucks 4
  • If Celtics go 3-0, AND Philly and Milwaukee finish with the same record: Celtics 2, Bucks 3, Sixers 4

Boston goes 2-1 with their only loss to Milwaukee

  • Bucks win tiebreaker from Celtics
  • If Sixers go 3-0 and Bucks go 3-0: Bucks 2, Sixers 3, Celtics 4
  • If Sixers go 3-0 and Bucks go 2-1: Sixers 2, Bucks 3, Celtics 4
  • If Bucks go 3-0 and Sixers go 2-1: Bucks 2, Celtics 3, Sixers 4
  • If all teams go 2-1: Bucks 2, Celtics 3, Sixers 4
  • If Bucks go 2-1 and Sixers go 1-2 or worse: Bucks 2, Celtics 3, Sixers 4
  • If Sixers go 2-1 and Bucks go 1-2: Celtics 2, Sixers 3, Bucks 4
  • If both Bucks and Sixers go 1-2 or worse: Celtics 2 seed

Boston goes 2-1 while beating Milwaukee AND Chicago

  • Celtics win tiebreaker from both Sixers and Bucks
  • If all three teams go 2-1: Celtics 2, Bucks 3, Sixers 4
  • If Sixers go 3-0: Sixers 2, Celtics 3, Bucks 4
  • If Sixers go 1-2 AND Bucks win over Detroit OR Cleveland: Celtics 2, Bucks 3, Sixers 4
  • If Sixers go 2-1 AND Bucks go 1-2 or worse: Celtics 2, Sixers 3, Bucks 4

Boston goes 2-1 while beating Milwaukee AND Memphis

  • Bucks can regain tiebreaker from Celtics in any scenarios from above where the two are tied by beating both Detroit AND Cleveland, by virtue of better record against conference

Boston goes 1-2, with their only win over Memphis OR over Chicago

  • Celtics lose tiebreaker to Bucks
  • If both Bucks and Sixers finish 2-1 or better, Celtics become the 4-seed
  • Bucks hold tiebreaker over Sixers
  • If Bucks go 3-0 AND Sixers go 2-1: Bucks 2, Sixers 3, Celtics 4
  • If Sixers go 3-0 AND Bucks go 2-1: Sixers 2, Bucks 3, Celtics 4
  • If Sixers go 2-1 AND Bucks go 1-2: Sixers 2, Bucks 3, Celtics 4
  • If all three go 1-2: Bucks 2, Celtics 3, Sixers 4

Boston goes 1-2, with their only win over Milwaukee

  • Celtics win tiebreaker over Bucks
  • If both Bucks and Sixers finish 2-1 or better, Celtics become the 4-seed
  • Bucks hold tiebreaker over Sixers
  • If Bucks go 3-0 AND Sixers go 2-1: Bucks 2, Sixers 3, Celtics 4
  • If Sixers go 3-0 AND Bucks go 2-1: Sixers 2, Bucks 3, Celtics 4
  • If Sixers go 2-1 AND Bucks go 1-2: Sixers 2, Bucks 3, Celtics 4
  • If all three go 1-2: Celtics 2, Bucks 3, Sixers 4

Boston goes 0-3

  • Bucks win tiebreaker over Celtics AND Sixers
  • If both Bucks and Sixers finish 1-2 or better, Celtics become the 4-seed
  • If both Sixers and Celtics go 0-3: Bucks 2, Celtics 3, Sixers 4

Without a doubt, the Celtics’ schedule is the toughest one remaining. There are factors that go in their favor, though. The Bulls are wounded and sliding, only 4-6 in their last ten games. The Grizzlies, safely entrenched as the 2-seed in the Western Conference, could elect to rest some of their guys on Sunday to avoid injury and play a less competitive lineup.

Still, the C’s should focus on controlling their own fate through victory and seizing the second seed. There is little benefit to facing a play-in team over the 6-seed, but snatching home court in the second round is pivotal. A strong end to the regular season not only sends us into the playoffs on a high note but gives an added layer of security down the line.