The 2011 NBA Playoff Picture in the Eastern Conference is relatively settled in terms of what teams will participate in the NBA playoffs -- only one spot is truly up for grabs, as the top seven teams in the conference are on solid ground. But there's plenty of seeding jostling to be done in the weeks ahead. Here's on overview of the playoff picture in the East.
GUNNIN' FOR THAT NO. 1 SPOT
The Boston Celtics are currently in the No. 1 spot with a 47-17 record, but the Chicago Bulls (47-18) trail by just a half-game. The Celtics currently lead the season series between the teams, but the Bulls do host the Celtics on April 7; a Chicago win would tie the season series at 2-2. As both teams will win their division -- Chicago has actually already clinched the Central -- the next tiebreaker is conference record. The Bulls are currently 28-11 against the East. The Celtics are 31-8. As such, provided the Bulls win the final game against the Celtics, Boston remains in the pole position in terms of tiebreakers. Each team has fairly balanced home-road schedules remaining.
The third team who could get involved for the top spot is the Miami Heat, who sit three behind the Celtics today after that awful losing streak mucked things up. For all intents and purposes, the Heat are four behind the Celtics because Boston is up 3-0 in the season series, meaning that Miami needs to beat Boston's record to land at No. 1; a tie won't do. The same holds for the Heat and Bulls, where Chicago is up 3-0 in the season series. Miami's toughest remaining game is Monday against the San Antonio Spurs; the Heat do have a stretch through late March and early April where they have seven straight games without a playoff opponent.
The No. 2 seed is a nice consolation prize, as that team would have home court advantage over the No. 3 seed, should both teams advance to the second round. Winning two conference series on the road is a challenge, so the No. 2 seed is valued.
FIRST-ROUND SERIES BREWING
In all likelihood, the Orlando Magic will host the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the East playoffs; Orlando is quite a ways behind the Heat for No. 3, but won't be caught by Atlanta. The Hawks are similarly far enough ahead of the New York Knicks (3.5 games) that the No. 5 seed seems safe. For the record, the Magic crushed the Hawks in four games last postseason.
KNICKS HOPING TO HOLD ON
The Knicks were seen as a major threat to pull down the Hawks and claim the No. 5 seed, avoiding any of the East's "big three" in the first round. But New York is closer to losing the No. 6 to the Philadelphia 76ers than catching Atlanta; the Sixers are just a half-game behind the Knicks. The seeding there may not mean much -- it'd likely be the difference between facing the Celtics or Bulls and the Heat, if all holds. Either way, the No. 6-8 seeds in the East are in trouble.
BATTLE FOR EIGHTH
Three teams are in serious contention for the No. 8 seed in the East; by "serious contention" I mean "pratfalls and hijinks." The Pacers should have run away with the spot by now, but a six-game losing streak snapped by a win over the Knicks on Sunday kept the Charlotte Bobcats and Milwaukee Bucks in the race. The Bobcats and Pacers are tied at 28-38; Indiana has the tiebreaker owing to a 3-0 season series edge. The Bucks are 1.5 games back at 26-39; Milwaukee also has the advantage of currently season series edges over each other competitor. The Bucks are 2-1 against Indiana with one more game remaining, and 2-0 over Charlotte with one left. The Pacers and Bucks are really tight in the supplemental tiebreaker races, too, so every game counts.
IF IT BEGAN TODAY
If the Eastern playoffs began today ...
No. 1 Celtics vs. No. 8 Pacers
No. 2 Bulls vs. No. 7 Sixers
No. 3 Heat vs. No. 6 Knicks
No. 4 Magic vs. No. 5 Hawks
This post was edited to reflect a clarification on tiebreakers.