How the NBA Playoffs Work

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 18: The logo of the NBA Playoffs logo after play between the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 18, 2009 in San Antonio, Texas.

Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

The top eight teams in the NBA's Eastern and Western Conferences, based on regular-season record, qualify for the playoffs. The teams are seeded one through eight. In the first round, the top seed plays the eighth seed, two plays seven, three plays six and four plays five.

Teams are not re-seeded after each round. The winner of the one/eight series plays the winner of four/five, and the winner of two/seven plays the three/six winner.

Divisions and Playoff Seeding

Each conference is split into six-team divisions. The Atlantic, Central, and Southeast divisions make up the Eastern Conference and the Northwest, Southwest, and Pacific comprise the West. The winners of each division and the remaining team with the best overall record are awarded the first through fourth seeds in the playoffs.

Division winners are not guaranteed a top-three seed or even home-court advantage in the first round. For example: if the season ended on April 11, 2012, the Chicago Bulls (44-14), Miami Heat (40-16) and Boston Celtics (34-24) would be champions of the Central, Southeast and Atlantic divisions, respectively. The Bulls have the East's top overall record and would be the top seed, Miami would be second. But the Indiana Pacers (36-22) have a better record than the Celtics, so they'd be seeded third and Boston fourth.

That fourth seed might be higher than the fifth in name only. Home-court advantage goes to the team with the best record, which isn't always the team with the higher seed. That's a real possibility this season; as of April 11, the Celtics have an identical record to the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic. The Hawks or Magic could pass Boston in the standings, enter the playoffs as a lower seed but still have home-court advantage in the first round.

Seeding and Tie Breakers

In the event of a tie, the following criteria are used to determine the seeding. The first tiebreaker in all scenarios is a division title - a division champ gets a higher seed over a non-champ with the same record, regardless of whether or not the teams are in the same division. If that doesn't settle the issue, the following statistics are considered, in descending order:

  • Head-to-head record
  • Winning percentage within division (if tied teams are in the same division)
  • Winning percentage within the conference
  • Winning percentage against playoff teams within the conference
  • Winning percentage against playoff teams in the other conference
  • Point differential

Series Format and Home Court Advantage

Each series is played in a best-of-seven format. The team with the home-court advantage - in most cases, the higher seed - hosts games one, two, five and seven and goes on the road for games three, four and six.

In the NBA Finals, the format changes to 2-3-2. The team with the better record is home for games one, two, six and seven (if necessary).

Seeding, Trends, and Records

The one vs. eight matchups in the NBA playoffs isn't quite as lopsided as the NCAA Tournament's one vs. sixteen games but it's close. Only five eight seeds have advanced past the first round.

  • 1994 Denver Nuggets
  • 1999 New York Knicks
  • 2007 Golden State Warriors
  • 2011 Memphis Grizzlies
  • 2012 Philadelphia 76ers

The most recent example - the 2012 Sixers - may deserve an asterisk. They were matched up against the Chicago Bulls, who lost NBA MVP Derrick Rose to a torn ACL in the closing minutes of game one. Chicago won that game but lost four of the next five, as Philly advanced.

The 1999 Knicks would go on to reach the NBA Finals - the only eight seed ever to do so. But the 1998-99 season was lockout-shortened; it seems fair to suggest that Knick team would have been seeded higher in a full 82-game season.

The 2007 Warriors were the first eight seed to win a seven-game series; in 1994 and 1999, the first-round series was played in a best-of-five format.

The 1995 Houston Rockets were the lowest-seeded team to win an NBA title. Hakeem Olajuwon and company entered the 1995 playoffs as a six seed but were able to advance past the Jazz, Suns, and Spurs before sweeping Shaquille O'Neal's Orlando Magic in the Finals and winning their second consecutive NBA title.

The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers owned the best overall record for a single postseason. That team went 15-1 on their way to the title, sweeping the Blazers, Kings, and Spurs in the Western Conference playoffs and dropping just one game to the Sixers in the Finals.