Predicting how NBA’s wild Eastern Conference finish will unfold

The NBA took a breather Monday, ceding all of the basketball attention to Connecticut and Purdue duking it out for the NCAA Tournament championship, and that’s probably a good thing. Right now, there is only one given in the sport as it hits the bell lap on the regular season:

The Celtics will have any and all Game 7s at home. They are eight games up on the best of the West, and they are 15 games up on the field in the East. They wrapped up home court absurdly early. But that also means the Celtics will be an interesting wild card in the final week, because they’ve also earned the right to rest whoever they wish whenever they wish.

And this is the only time such load management can not only be universally defended, but almost required. The only thing the C’s need to be sure of is that they’re 100 percent healthy once the tournament begins. So they will likely do what they’ve already done the last few weeks: keep cycling nights off for their regulars for their four remaining games against the Bucks, Knicks, Hornets and Wizards.

They could play 10 season-ticket holders in those last two games and nobody would either notice or care. But the Bucks and Knicks are part of a wild seven-team grouping that will, by this time next week, have shaken out the 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 seeds. It’s conceivable the Celtics could play full against the Knicks and Bucks both in order to send one last message to two possible playoff foes; it’s just as likely they’d prefer to keep them guessing.

They’ve earned the right.

The Celtics have long sewn up the top seed in the East and can rest whomever they feel like — including Jayson Tatum. Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Now it’s on the other seven teams to earn what they can. We’ll start with the Knicks, who remarkably still could finish as high as the 2 (and with the Bucks facing stiff tests in all four of their remaining games, that’s not an impossibility) or as low as the 8 (although it would require an immediate free fall, since their magic number for finishing ahead of the Heat is 1, thanks to their remarkable win in Milwaukee on Sunday).

That 122-109 win was huge for the Knicks on a lot of levels, but the immediate relevance is that it almost certainly gets them in the top six. Their remaining games are two against the Bulls (in Chicago on Tuesday, at home in Sunday’s finale), at Boston on Thursday, and home to the Nets on Saturday. They will be favored in three of those games, and then we’ll see who Boston decides to put on the floor Thursday. My guess: Kristaps Porzingis sits, everyone else plays.

Jalen Brunson and the Knicks can finish anywhere from second the eighth. Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: 3-1, for a 49-33 finish. Second in the East.


The Bucks … yikes, the Bucks. Before losing to the Knicks, they’d also dropped three straight to the league’s dregs — Washington, Memphis, Toronto. Surely they can’t completely tumble … or can they? They also have the hardest remaining schedule (Boston, home-and-home with Orlando, at OKC).

Prediction: 1-3, for a 48-34 finish. Third in the East.


The Magic also has their work cut out in the final week with a home-and-home with Milwaukee and road games at Philly and Houston. They’ll do well to split.

Paolo Banchero and the Magic are in for a tough finish. Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: 2-2, for a 48-34 finish. Fourth in the East (presuming the Bucks and Magic split, as this model does, the Bucks win the tiebreaker as a division winner).


The Cavaliers had a lost weekend in Los Angeles and have been drifting in mediocrity for two months, going 11-17 since that 17-1 stretch in January and February. They have two layups this week (Memphis and at Charlotte) and one dogfight, with the Pacers.

Prediction: 2-1, for a 48-34 finish. Fifth in the East. (Cavs would lose the tiebreaker to Orlando based on better conference record).


Tyrese Haliburton and Jimmy Butler should be part of the playoff equation. AP

The Pacers certainly could sweep the three games they have left (at Toronto, at Cleveland, at Atlanta) … but they also lost to the mailing-it-in Nets last week. It stands to reason they will lose one of these; the way the Pacers have been, they could well beat the Cavs and then drop the finale against the Hawks, who will be battling the Bulls for home court in the 9-10 play-in game.

Prediction: 2-1, for a 47-35 finish. Sixth in the East (beating out the 76ers thanks to a 2-1 head-to-head record).


The 76ers, while still south of the play-in cut line, have Joel Embiid back and three home games left — against the Pistons, Magic and Nets. They’re already catching fire and there’s no reason to believe that will stop now.

Prediction: 3-0, for a 47-35 finish. Seventh in the East (losing the tiebreaker with Indiana).


Which leaves the Heat, who have a roadie at Atlanta and three home games — two against the woeful Raptors and one against the red-hot Mavericks. The Heat could sweep, but 3-1 is far more likely.

Prediction: 3-1, for a 46-36 finish. Eighth in the East.


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