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Analyzing Miami’s seeding scenarios with two games remaining

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Which team will the Heat most likely face in the first round of the NBA playoffs?

Miami Heat v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

The Miami Heat clinched their second consecutive playoff berth Tuesday with a 129-121 victory over the Boston Celtics.

The Heat are playing arguably playing their best basketball of the season of late. They are 11-3 in their last 14 games and own an Eastern Conference-best 17-7 record since March 29. How does Erik Spoelstra always find a way to figure it out at this time of year?

With two games remaining, Miami’s in the midst of a game of musical chairs with the New York Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks for the 4-6 seeds. Miami is tied with the Knicks for the No. 5 seed and are a half-game back behind the Atlanta Hawks for the 4-spot.

Mathematically, it’s not possible for any of the three aforementioned teams to fall below the No. 6 seed. Their results over the next 48 hours will determine where they finish as the COVID-shortened season concludes. Here’s what their schedules look like heading into the final weekend of regular season action:

Games Remaining

TEAM 5/15 5/16 GB Remaining SOS Rank (per Tankathon)
TEAM 5/15 5/16 GB Remaining SOS Rank (per Tankathon)
Atlanta Hawks vs. HOU ------ 30th (Easiest)
Miami Heat @ MIL @ DET 0.5 21st
New York Knicks vs. CHA vs BOS 0.5 17th

The Heat jump into the No. 4 seed if....

Atlanta owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami, winning two of its three meetings this season. So, the Heat would need to win out while relying on Atlanta to lose Sunday against the Houston Rockets—who possess the NBA’s worst record, including losses in 17 of their last 20 games—in order to leapfrog the Hawks for the No. 4 seed.

According to Basketball Reference, which has its own playoff predicting scenarios feature, the Heat have a 3.7 percent chance of landing homecourt in the first round, while the Hawks have a 61.4 percent chance. Interestingly enough, per this same projection system, New York has more than double the odds at earning the 4th seed (34.9 percent) than it does the 5th seed (14.6 percent).

The Heat earn the No. 5 seed if....

Miami swept the season series against the Knicks, who own the league’s best record at 14-4 (.778) since April 9. One scenario would require the Heat matching the Knicks’ record for their two games to remain in the No. 5 spot. If Miami won out, the worst it could finish would be fifth. It predicates on if Atlanta downs Houston (which it should, by a lot!)

Per Basketball Reference, the Heat have a 50 percent chance at earning the No. 5 seed, while the Hawks place second at at 35.4 percent. Five Thirty Eight’s projection system believes the Heat and Knicks will finish at 40-32 with Atlanta at 41-31, thus gifting Miami the 5th seed.

The Heat drop to the No. 6 seed if....

Miami’s most difficult roadblock this weekend is knocking off the Bucks; there’s a plausible scenario where the Knicks win out and Miami splits its final two games.

Milwaukee knocked down an NBA-record 29 3-pointers en route to a 47-point destruction in their first meeting of the year. But the Heat responded with an 11-point victory the night after in its fourth game of the season. Likewise, New York split with the Celtics and the Hornets in their series meetings this season.

That goes without saying: A lot can change in between those previous matchups and now. Boston is without star guard Jaylen Brown; the Heat have played much better than it did in the opening few games; even the Knicks and Hawks have both seen considerable mid-season improvements. Just to name a few things.

That said, anything can happen throughout the ensuing 48 hours. Miami has a 46.3 percent chance at ending up a No. 6 seed; the Knicks have a 50.5 percent chance and the Hawks have just above a three percent chance.

What happens if there’s a three-team tie?

In the event that all three teams, per the NBA tie breaking rules, the one who is atop its division wins the tiebreaker. Under this scenario, the Hawks secure the No. 4 seed, while Miami’s matchup tiebreaker against the Knicks award them the No. 5 seed.

Atlantic Division

Philadelphia 76ers 48-23 .676 -------
Brooklyn Nets 46-24 .657 1.5
New York Knicks 39-31 .557 8.5
Boston Celtics 35-35 .500 12.5
Toronto Raptors 27-43 .386 20.5

Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks 40-31 .563 ------
Miami Heat 39-31 .557 0.5
Charlotte Hornets 33-37 .471 6.5
Washington Wizards 33-38 .465 7
Orlando Magic 21-50 .296 19

Avoiding the No. 6 seed—which would net them a first round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks—is Miami’s most favorable course for advancing further into the playoffs.

If the Heat were to send the Bucks packing for the second straight year, social media would have its fun! But more importantly, it likely sets up a showdown with the Brooklyn Nets—guided by the three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Heat squaring off with one of the Knicks or Hawks followed by the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers—again, assuming Miami advances—is the more optimal route.

What seed do you think the Heat will end up with? Comment below.