Commentary

PER Diem: April 10, 2009

Using the Playoff Odds to determine the most likely first- and second-round matchups

Updated: April 10, 2009, 4:28 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

So … who's playing whom in the playoffs?

It's a bit tricky figuring it out, but that's where the Playoff Odds can really help us. Instead of looking at all the tiebreaker scenarios and remaining schedules and trying to eyeball it, today I'm going to employ the computer's help in deducing the playoff pairings. For each team, we can come up with likely opponents in the first two rounds of the postseason, something that isn't necessarily clear just by looking at the standings this morning -- particularly out West.

Just for giggles, I've run through all the scenarios the Playoff Odds projected and have listed them out here for all to see; since this data isn't displayed in the Playoff Odds table, I thought it might prove helpful for fans to see where their teams are headed.

Let's start in the East, though, since that's the easier of the two to figure out. And let's start at the top with the Cavs (note that for space reasons, I haven't listed any matchups with less than a 1 percent probability; for instance, the 0.1 percent chance of Cleveland and Orlando meeting in Round 2 won't be shown in the following chart. Also, note that Round 2 probabilities assume the team in question wins Round 1):

This is a simple one, obviously, since Cavs fans pretty much knew this already. There's about a three-quarters chance that the Cavaliers will start against Detroit, and then it's about 50-50 whether they get the Hawks in Round 2 or somebody else.

Looks as though the Celtics will draw the streaking Bulls, which won't be an easy matchup given Chicago's late-season hot streak and the Celtics' struggles of late. Presuming they survive, Boston-Orlando has been etched in stone for Round 2 for a long time now, so it's no surprise that the Odds show those two teams are virtual locks to pair up at that point.

Same goes for the Magic, who seem very likely to draw a favorable pairing against the Sixers to start with but could end up with less palatable pairings against the Heat or the Bulls. Note that in the Orlando-Boston pairing, the Celtics are the home team 80.5 percent of the time. In other words, don't count on the Magic surpassing Boston and claiming the No. 2 seed.

Well, it looks pretty straightforward for these guys. The Round 1 opponent is still not set in stone, but the Sixers' loss to the Bulls Thursday greatly reduces the possibility of the Sixers passing the Heat. Miami has the tiebreaker and the Sixers play Cleveland twice and Boston once in the final week.


OK, now for the fun part -- the West. Since the standings are still changing on a daily basis, the probabilities are a lot more widely distributed. Let's show you what I mean:

The Lakers are probably playing Dallas in Round 1 unless the Mavs sweep both games against the Hornets this week. However, the Lakers could potentially play god in this one by punting their April 14 game against the Jazz to improve their odds of facing Dallas, a team they've owned recently.

As for Round 2? Um, yeah … not a lot of clarity there. What's interesting for Lakers fans is that their two most likely Round 2 opponents are the two teams they probably want to see the least in the postseason: Portland and Houston. But much depends on the still unsettled matter of who ends up in the 4-5 slots out West, and, of course, on who prevails in the first round once they get there.

No clarity at all here for the Nuggets, who are about equally likely to face each of the three bottom teams in the West as of today. But the most likely of the three, Utah, certainly has to give Nuggets fans some pause, as on paper the Jazz are the most talented of the three. Selfishly, it's also the pairing I want to see the most, given the underrated Rocky Mountain rivalry between these two cities and the relatively even matchup it presents on the court.

For Round 2, it may seem odd to see the Blazers as the most likely opponent for both the Nuggets and the Lakers … but it's really more a commentary on the Blazers' strong Power Ranking. Remember, you can't play in Round 2 unless you win Round 1; the computer sees Portland as more likely to do so than Houston or San Antonio, the Blazers' competition for the third and fourth slots in the West.

Houston has the inside track on the Southwest Division crown, but it'll take every computer in Daryl Morey's laboratory to figure out what happens afterward. The Rockets have roughly equal odds of drawing five different teams. Of note is that Houston is the one team that's absolutely terrified of facing Utah, and that scenario still has a decent chance of happening if the Rockets end up with the No. 3 seed.

The Rockets are about equally likely to face the Lakers or the Nuggets in the second round if either wins the first; the difference in the percentages above stems from the Lakers' greater odds of advancing in the first round.


The Blazers are in the same boat as the Rockets, with roughly equal odds of facing the Hornets, Rockets, Spurs or Jazz in the opening round depending on whether they end up seeded third or fall into the 4-5 bracket. Same goes for Round 2, where Portland can expect to face the Lakers if it doesn't claim the third seed but would get a much more winnable matchup if it can earn the third slot.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.