Entering Friday's fourth and final meeting of the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks hold a half-game lead over the Toronto Raptors for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Taking a look at what they've done up to this point and who remains on the schedule sheds light on who holds the upper hand in the race for home court.
Given what history tells us about the difference between finishing first or second reveals just what's at stake when Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo square off in Toronto.
Strength of Schedule
Up to this point in the season, the Raptors have played the hardest schedule of any Eastern Conference team and sixth-hardest overall. It's a rather stark contrast compared to the Bucks, who have played the 16th-easiest schedule league-wide.
This is according to TeamRankings which takes into account home and road, significant given the roughly three-point cushion given to home teams. It's a key distinction to make when compared to unadjusted SOS in which Toronto grades out with the 12th-hardest schedule.
More important for gauging who will actually come out on top in the East is looking at remaining schedules.
It's here that Toronto enjoys a sizeable edge.
According to TeamRankings, the Raptors have the NBA's third-easiest remaining schedule as only the Knicks and Hawks face an easier path from here on out.
They've already played both games against Golden State Warriors, both games against the Denver Nuggets and six of their combined eight games against the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. Toronto only has two more back-to-backs on the schedule and even those aren't particularly daunting as the oppoents on the second nights are the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Conversely, the Bucks have the 13th-easiest remaining schedule. Though not exactly a murderer's row left on the slate, the road through the regular season includes potentially tricky games at Utah and San Antonio, both games against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, two of their three games against the 76ers, home dates with the Houston Rockets and Celtics and the regular-season finale against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that could be playing for much-needed seeding in the West.
The odds of finishing 1st
A far easier schedule and only a half-game back means the Raptors are favoured to get that 1 seed, right?
Not so fast.
According to Inpredicable.com, the Bucks have a 69% chance of finishing with the 1 seed.
There are two factors that work in Milwaukee's favour.
The first is simple, and it's merely where they stand head-to-head. The Bucks won two of the first three meetings and can clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win on Friday. Even if the Raptors win to even the season series, the Bucks still hold the advantage in the next tiebreaker which is conference record.
The second edge for Milwaukee is that they've simply shown to be the more consistent team.
If there's anybody outside of Oakland that isn't worried about facing off against good teams, it's the Bucks. Against teams currently at or above .500, the Bucks are averaging a league-high 116.2 points per game with an average scoring margin of +8.6, which is nearly twice as good as anyone else and far superior to Toronto (+3.6).
By comparison, the 2015-16 Warriors which set the all-time record for regular season wins outscored good teams by an average of +9.6, not much better than what we've seen from the Greek Freak and Co.
The Bucks also have the scoring margin of a team you'd expect to be 38-11 instead of 36-13. That means they're probably even better than their current record indicates.
The significance of home court
The Bucks are 22-4 are at home, the Raptors are 21-4. Both are significantly better than when going on the road.
Home court matters for some teams more than others. For proven championship teams - the Warriors, any team with LeBron James, the Tim Duncan Spurs teams - winning pressure-packed games on the road is not big deal. For everyone else, home court matters.
Last year's Celtics serve as a perfect reminder of that very fact. They went 10-1 at home and just 1-7 on the road. In the 1st round against the Bucks, the home team won every game. Ditto for the first six games of the Conference Finals until Game 7 when LeBron James and the battle-tested Cavaliers pulled out a win on the road in Boston.
So we know that it matters. But just how much?
In NBA history, home teams are 104-28 overall in Game 7. Looking just at the Conference Finals, home teams are 17-8 in Game 7. Of course, two of those eight losses came last year when both Cleveland and Golden State - two teams with serious postseason experience - managed to win on the road for a spot in the NBA Finals, something that has never previously happened twice in the same postseason.
You might point to that overall record and argue that it's misleading due to all of the instances of vastly superior teams winning at home against teams lucky to force a Game 7. You might be tempted to say they won because they were better, not necessarily because they were at home.
OK. So what happens when you keep it to just 1 seeds squaring off with 2 seeds?
In that scenario, the home team has won 13 of the 17 meetings, which is essentially no different than the overall winning percentage for home teams in a Game 7.
In terms of actually reaching the Finals, 1 seeds have gotten there nearly twice as often as 2 seeds since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1983-84. Over that span, 38 of the 70 teams to finish with the 1 seed in either conference has reached the NBA Finals while just 20 of the 2 seeds and seven of the 3 seeds have gotten there.
So while it's true that there's lots of time left in the regular season, where you finish matters, especially for teams dreaming big. In a competitive conference with a small margin for error, every game counts.