Unlike other sports with a "wild card" format, regular season records rule when it comes to 10 of the 16 teams making the playoffs in the National Basketball Association. The bracket is made up of eight teams from both the Eastern and Western Conference, and the teams of each are seeded based on records and finishes within their respective divisions.
At the end of the 82-game regular season, the top teams in each conference get set to face off in the playoffs. In the first round, the top four seeds will face off against the bottom four. The top four are made up of the three division winners and the non-division winner with the best record. The matchups go No. 1 vs. No. 8; No. 2 vs. No. 7; No. 3 vs. No. 6; and No. 4 vs. No. 5. The winning teams move on to the Conference Semifinals, then the Conference Finals and finally the NBA finals.
Forming the Field
Winning a division -- which include the Atlantic, Central and Southeast in the Eastern Conference, and the Northwest, Pacific and Southwest in the Western Conference -- guarantees a top four seed, the order of which goes by regular season record. The non-division winner with the best record can reach as high as the No. 2 seed; otherwise a team that did not win a division can do no better than No. 5. The Nos. 5-8 seeds are determined solely by record. If there is a tie, a division leader automatically wins, and then there are six more levels of tiebreakers. The first used is head-to-head record, followed by conference record, record against playoff eligible teams in their own conference, record against playoff eligible teams in the opposite conference and, finally, point differential.
The team with the better regular-season record -- most often the higher seed -- gets the advantage of playing at home in the series' first two games, Game 5 and Game 7 at home. The top seed in either conference is guaranteed home-court advantage through at least the conference finals. In the other matchups, the team with the advantage is generally contingent on any upsets -- lower seeds beating higher seeds -- throughout the playoffs.
Winning it All
Every series in the playoffs -- from the conference quarterfinals, semifinals, finals, and NBA Finals -- follow the 2-2-1-1-1 format. That means the first two games are played on the home court of the team with the better record, the next two are played on the opposing team's court, and the final three games -- if necessary -- alternate between the two. This change was made in 2014, when owners voted to nix the 2-3-2 format that was exclusively used in the finals.
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