Why the Celtics got a raw deal due to inconsistent NBA seeding rules

The Celtics finished in a four-way tie for third place in the East, but ended up with the fifth seed.

The reward for Boston's finish? A road series with the Hawks. The Associated Press

After completing the biggest comeback in the NBA this season, the Celtics couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed Wednesday night at the TD Garden. Despite completing a 36-point turnaround, which included outscoring the Heat by a 60-26 margin in the second half of a gritty 98-88 victory over the Heat, Boston found out it would have to pack its bags for Atlanta.

There was one scenario that would lead the Celtics to the No. 5 seed and a date with Atlanta in the first round even if the Celtics won Wednesday night. Boston got just that when the Hawks fell to the Wizards in Washington. That created a four-team tie between Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami, that ultimately pushed the Celtics to the No. 5 seed.


This scenario understandably left the Celtics a little salty. How did a team they just beat in the regular season series three times (Miami) win a tiebreaker over them and jump up to the No. 3 seed? It came down to divisions and tiebreakers. Boston wasn’t eligible to win the three-seed in a multi-team tiebreaker with Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte, since one of those teams had to win the division and the division winner was the deciding tiebreaker.

Here’s the problem though with that system: the NBA actually tried to change it last summer.

Back in September, the NBA essentially decided to deemphasize divisions when it came to playoff seeding. It used to be a division winner was always the top tiebreaker at the end of the regular season and head-to-head record was second tiebreaker. But last offseason, the NBA realized that system was not exactly fair and the league’s Board of Governors changed its procedures so that head-to-head record was the top tiebreaker moving forward.

The league also eliminated a rule that guaranteed a division winner the fourth seed or better in that same vote. The changes signaled that while divisions were still going to exist, they just weren’t going to matter for much anymore. Or at least that’s what it seemed.


The problem? The league only changed the tiebreaker procedures for a two-team tie in the standings. For multi-team ties (like Boston finished in last night) a division winner was and still is the top tiebreaker over head-to-head record for some reason. That caused the Celtics to get a tough draw last night in the final Eastern Conference standings.

If the playoff seedings were based on cumulative head-to-head records (as is case in two-team ties), here’s how the final standings would have looked:

3. Boston (6-4)

4. Atlanta (7-5)

5. Miami (5-6)

6. Charlotte (4-7)

Instead, the Heat, a team the Celtics swept 3-0 in the regular season, won the four-team tiebreaker because they were division champs. They did so because Boston was eliminated from the four-team tie (non-division winner), and Miami had better head-to-head records than Atlanta and Charlotte.

Southeast Division head-to-head tiebreaker

1. Miami (5-3)

2. Atlanta (4-4)

3. Charlotte (3-5)

From there, we were left with a three-team tie (Hawks, Celtics, Hornets). Atlanta had best overall head-to-head record among those three teams, so the Celtics got bumped down to the five seed and got the toughest possible draw on road starting Saturday.

Three-team head-to-head tiebreaker for fourth place

4. Atlanta (6-2)

5. Boston (3-4)

6. Charlotte (2-5)

Make no mistake, the Celtics did themselves no favors by losing Saturday and Monday, but NBA’s seeding procedures did them in last night. For a league that was trying to deemphasize the importance of divisions when it comes to seeding in the playoffs, the exact opposite occurred on Wednesday night.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly tabulated the head-to-head records. 


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