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Playoffs? Yes, we're talking Bucks playoffs

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I could watch this over and over (h/t BLKOUT)

I still tend to start sweating and look around nervously when the words "Bucks" and "playoffs" are mentioned in the same sentence, but after yesterday's win it's hard to avoid thinking about what April might hold.  A crushing collapse of epic proportions?  A shocking upset of a first round Goliath?  I'll play it safe and say it'll probably be something in between, but that's certainly not a bad outcome all things considered.  Rome wasn't built in a day, and the Bucks' metamorphosis from lottery fodder to legit contender won't happen in a single season either.   It's OK--we're having fun anyway.

The funny part is of course that now even the national media is taking notice of the little basketball team that could. Next week's Clipper game is on ESPN, the Canadians are talking, and if you're looking for positive reinforcement about the Bucks' playoff chops, John Hollinger's playoff numbers are looking pretty good for the Bucks.   

We've been talking about five teams battling for four spots in the East for weeks, but Milwaukee's win over Boston on Tuesday essentially cemented a playoff berth for the Bucks. Milwaukee has 34 wins in the bank with 11 home games remaining, and it is the hottest team in the league right now (sorry, Dallas) with 10 wins in 11 games since acquiring John Salmons.

If that wasn't enough, the Bucks should own every tiebreaker with teams still fighting for playoff slots. They clinched the head-to-head series with Toronto and Miami, and their 25-15 conference record should give them an edge over Charlotte and Chicago, even if the Bucks lose their final meeting against each team. As an added bonus, the Bucks' final three games -- against Boston, Atlanta and Boston again -- could become gimmes if the playoff seedings of the Hawks and Celtics are locked in place.

CoolStandings.com pegs the Bucks a 98.5% lock to make the East's final eight, only a tick less than Hollinger's 99.2%. That might seem like a lot given the Bucks are only three games ahead of the ninth-seeded Bulls, but the Bucks home-heavy schedule the rest of the way, their level of recent play, and their ownership of most tiebreakers give them a clear edge over the chasing pack. Aside from that, all these projections rely at least somewhat on Pythagorean projections (ie points scored vs. points allowed) and the Bucks' expected winning percentage (.559) is still higher than their actual percentage (.540), owing largely to their 5-10 record in games decided by three points or less.

Who will they face?  There's a fair bit of separation between the Magic (45-20) and Hawks (40-23) in the Southeast, so you'd guess Orlando hangs on there and condemns Atlanta to the 3rd or 4th seed--indeed, Cool Standings has Orlando a 96% favorite to win the division.  That leaves the Celtics (40-22) fairly locked into the third seed unless they can catch Orlando for #2 left to fight with the Hawks for 3/4 spots [thanks to ZV for noting that since 06/07 the division winners are guaranteed a top four seed, not a top three...sadly, I haven't had to brush up on my playoff seeding rules since 05/06].

Which means it will mostly be up to the Bucks to determine which team they face, which is about how you'd want it.  As much as the Celtics may not be at their best right now, I can't honestly say I'd prefer to play them over a younger, less playoff-tested squad like the Hawks.  We'll get a better feel for how the Bucks match up with both teams in the final 19 games, as the Bucks play Atlanta three more times (twice at home) and face the Celtics twice more.  If the Bucks slip they could end up facing the Cavs or Magic, neither of whom I'd feel too good about--primarily because their bigs match up better with Bogut.  Check out our playoff matchup discussion for more.

In other good news, don't forget the fine print on the John Salmons trade. Aside from getting the Bulls' 2010 and 2011 second rounders, the Bucks also have the right to swap first round picks with the Bulls provided Chicago's not in the top ten, which as of now that means they'd move up a fair bit in the draft.  Considering Salmons has been exactly what the Bucks needed, that's some pretty nice gravy. 

Chicago just dropped a half game behind Miami last night for the 8th spot, meaning the Bucks--who would pick 18th if the season ended today--could move all the way up to 11th in the first round if Chicago ends up just outside the playoffs.  Still a long way to go, but Hollinger is predicting the final spot to come down to the Raptors and Bulls, so there's a chance the Bucks could get the best of both worlds.