- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Back in the final week of the 2007-08 season, the people in the NBA office who oversee playoff scheduling nearly had a collective coronary.
There were four teams within a game of each other vying for the top spot in the Western Conference. What should have been an exhilarating push over the final few games to determine a conference champion was instead turning into a potential nightmare.
Three of the teams were in the Southwest Division: Houston, New Orleans and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. If those three teams ended in a tie, the league's tiebreaker formula would kick in and give the division title to the Hornets. But that wasn't the problem. The problem was the fourth team, the Lakers.
If all four teams ended with the same record, which was entirely possible, then the Rockets would emerge as the tiebreaker winner. And there you had it: A team that could not win its division under one scenario emerged as the No. 1 seed in the conference under another scenario. The league did not want that to happen.
Luckily, the Lakers won out and secured the best record in the conference by a game over the Spurs and Hornets and by two games over the Rockets. But the matter moved the NBA to institute a minor wrinkle in the tiebreaking formula for the following season, 2008-09: If a division winner finished with the same record as a non-division winner, then the division winner would automatically receive the higher seed. Head-to-head results from the regular season would not matter.
"We added division winner as the first tiebreaker in an effort to provide a larger benefit to capturing a division title," explained league spokesman Tim Frank.
The board of governors approved the change, but there was no announcement from the league. The new wrinkle factored into the playoff seedings last season, when the Southwest Division-winning Spurs were awarded the third seed over the Blazers. The two teams had identical records and Portland had a 3-1 edge in the season series, but San Antonio got the nod by virtue of being a division champion. The rule has been thrust into the spotlight again this season as the Celtics and Hawks go into the final nine games with the same record (47-26).
Simply put, if Boston and Atlanta finish the season with identical records, the Celtics will receive the higher seed (most likely the No. 3) even though they lost all four regular-season games to the Hawks. That is because they will be champions of a division (the NBA's Hindenburg) while the Hawks will not, losing out to Orlando.
"I don't understand that at all," said ESPN analyst Jon Barry. "Why wouldn't head-to-head be No. 1? There's no fairer barometer than head-to-head. It doesn't seem right. I'm shocked. The Celtics are in a terrible division, which they're going to win. But realistically, what does a division title mean anyway?"
Here's what it means: a better seed, with possibly huge implications in the playoffs.
Should the Hawks and Celtics finish with the same record behind Cleveland (duh!) and Orlando (all but a lock), then the Celtics would get the third seed and Atlanta the fourth seed. Not only does that give Boston a (theoretically) easier opponent in the first round -- say Miami or Charlotte instead of Milwaukee -- it also takes the Celtics out of the Cavaliers' bracket until the conference finals. So should the Celtics and Hawks both prevail in their first-round series, the Hawks would then draw the Cavs in the second round. The Celtics would be in line to meet the Magic, assuming everything goes according to Hoyle.
Ever since the NBA went to six divisions in 2004, it has wrestled with possible injustices and inequities in the postseason. The league at first gave the top three seeds to the division champion, regardless of record. That blew up in 2006, when the Mavericks finished with the second-best record in the conference but were given a No. 4 seed, even though they won 16 games more than Denver, a division winner. Dallas thus had to play a 49-win Memphis team in the first round while Denver got the 47-win Clippers. Los Angeles, however, received home-court and dispatched the Nuggets in five games, the franchise's sole playoff win since it moved west from Buffalo in 1978.
Dallas and San Antonio then met in the second round, even though they were the two best teams in the conference over the regular season. (The Mavs prevailed in seven games.) To fix that, the NBA decided to seed the top four teams according to record, regardless of whether the team won its division.
There was peace and quiet on the playoff front after that change. In 2007, the Cavs finished behind Detroit in the Central Division, but, with 50 wins, had the second-best record in the East. Cleveland got the No. 2 seed. No one complained. There was the aforementioned scare in 2008, which resolved itself, but which also brought the new change to 2009. We are now seeing that change play a role in 2010.
Both teams have six possible playoff opponents in their remaining nine games. Atlanta has two games against the Cavs and a home game against the Lakers. The Celtics have two Western Conference teams this week (the Thunder and Rockets), as well as a home game with the Cavs and two games with Milwaukee.
It will all be moot if they don't finish with the same record. But if they do? You wonder how the Hawks are going to feel after what they did to the Celtics this season.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.