April is here, which means the NBA Playoffs are just around the corner.
The Chicago Bulls, who as of this writing sit fifth in the Eastern Conference, have four games left in their regular-season, but much remains undetermined. Their final position in the standings. Their first-round playoff opponent.
All will become clear by April 10, the final day of the regular season. But here's everything to know until then:
What is the Bulls' magic number?
The Bulls' "magic number" to clinch a playoff berth — i.e. a top-six seed in the East — is one. That means if they win any of their final four games, they are guaranteed to finish the regular season above the play-in fray.
That spot can also be clinched if the Cleveland Cavaliers (43-36) lose any of their final four games. With 45 wins, the Bulls have already clinched at worst a 45-37 regular-season record, which guarantees them better standing than the best-case scenario for three of the East's four play-in teams: Atlanta (41-37) — against whom the Bulls have already clinched the head-to-head tiebreak — Charlotte (40-38) and Brooklyn (40-38).
If the Cavaliers win out, they would finish 46-36 — one game better than the Bulls' worst-case scenario. But because the Bulls have already clinched the head-to-head tiebreak over Cleveland, the Bulls would need to lose out, and the Cavaliers would need to win out, for the Bulls to fall out of the top six.
That long-shot is why Basketball Reference pegs the Bulls with a 98.7 percent chance of finishing above the play-in.
Which seed is most likely for the Bulls?
According to Basketball Reference, the Bulls have a 55.7 percent chance of finishing sixth in the conference, a 42.1 percent chance of finishing fifth, and less-than-one-percent chances of finishing fourth (0.4) — which would require the Bulls winning out and one of the Celtics, 76ers or Bucks losing out — seventh (0.9) or eighth (0.4).
Right now, the Bulls and Raptors each possess 45-33 records, but the Bulls own the head-to-head tiebreak, meaning that in order to stay in fifth, they need to finish with a record as good or better than Toronto's by season's end. The simplest way to think about it is if the Bulls' wins and Raptors' losses in each team's final four games add up to four, the Bulls win the fifth seed. Any less, and the Raptors will nab that spot.
The reason Basketball Reference sees the latter as more likely is because the Raptors own a significantly easier rest-of-season schedule than the Bulls':
Bulls' remaining schedule (hardest in East): vs. Milwaukee (48-30), vs. Boston (49-30), vs. Charlotte (40-38), @ Minnesota (45-34)
Raptors' remaining schedule (ninth-hardest): vs. Atlanta (41-37), vs. Philadelphia (48-30), vs. Houston (20-59), @ Knicks (35-44)
Cavaliers' remaining schedule (11th-hardest): @ Orlando (20-59), @ Brooklyn (40-38), vs. Milwaukee (48-30)
Who is the Bulls' most likely first-round opponent?
Regardless of whether the Bulls finish fifth or sixth, this is difficult to predict. As of this writing, the Miami Heat lead the East with a 51-28 record, with the Celtics (49-30), Bucks (48-30) and 76ers (48-30) all within a half-game of each other in spots two through four.
If the Bulls finish fifth, they'll draw a matchup with the eventual fourth seed. If the Bulls finish sixth, they'll see the three seed. Under both scenarios, the Bulls would be without homecourt advantage, which has been kind to them this season — their 27-11 home record against an 18-22 road record marks one of the wider disparities in the league among winning teams.
So, too, does their 45-33 overall record compared against a 1-12 mark against the top four seeds in the Easts, with the only victory a November win at Boston.
"We haven't really played well enough against the better teams in the league, certainly by our record," head coach Billy Donovan said after Monday's practice. "We've got opportunities to play against really good quality teams starting tomorrow (Tuesday) — back-to-back with Milwaukee, then Boston. Charlotte's played well all year long and then having to go to Minnesota to close the season. It's less about that (matchups) and more of us playing better against those level of teams.
"I think wherever it finishes up at the end of the regular season, you're going to be playing good teams. We've gotta play better than we've played against some of those teams."
Well said. By the end of the month, the true colors of Donovan's group will show.
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