BOSTON (CBS) – Losers of four straight, the Boston Celtics don’t have much to play for as the NBA’s regular season draws to a close.
Gone are hopes of them climbing the Eastern Conference standings and potentially landing in the fourth, fifth or sixth seed. Instead, the Celtics find themselves entrenched in the seventh-seed with 13 games to go. Chances are they won’t moving up or down – with a two game cushion separating them from the eighth-seeded Bucks and sixth-seeded Bulls – so the next three and a half weeks will be all about staying healthy and finding a rhythm for the playoffs.
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But on Tuesday night, the Celtics will have a little more motivation as they square off against the New York Knicks at the TD Garden.
“If we get a chance to beat them a couple more times it takes away a team’s confidence heading into the playoffs,” Captain Paul Pierce said of the Knicks – a potential playoff matchup for the C’s in the first round. “They’ve been playing well this year on top of the Atlantic Division, but right now it’s about heading to the playoffs, picking up the pace. The Knicks are a team we might have to face so we’re going to put a little doubt in their minds if we can get a couple wins as the season ends.”
Boston has two more regular season chances to shake New York’s psyche – Tuesday in Boston and Sunday in New York – before a potential dance in the postseason for the second time in the last three years.
The Knicks currently sit atop the Atlantic Division, a spot the Celtics laid claim to for the last five seasons. But New York’s emergence as a playoff contender since their acquisition of Carmelo Anthony in 2011 has breathed new air into the Celtics-Knicks rivalry, and made the games a lot more difficult for C’s head coach Doc Rivers.
“It’s New York; our guys get up for them, I think they get up for us,” said head coach Doc Rivers. “Up until this year and last year, we had the advantage. We had the advantage and our guys were up, that usually spells good things for us. Now it’s pretty even, but both teams get up for each other. It’s a fun matchup. I preferred it better in the past, but it’s good now; I love it.”
The Celtics will be shorthanded Tuesday night, with Kevin Garnett shelved for the next two weeks to rest a foot injury and guard Courtney Lee likely out with an ankle injury suffered Friday night in Dallas. Without Garnett the Celtics may use a bigger lineup against New York with Jeff Green playing at the two-guard. Rivers joked on Monday it will be Celtics guards against Knicks point guards on Tuesday, because the C’s don’t actually have any point guards right now.
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That will put even more pressure on Avery Bradley, as he goes to battle with a plethora of New York guards. But he is just one of the keys for the Celtics, as the team defense has struggled as a whole during the current slide. For the most part, it’s basically disappeared since the Celtics beat the Charlotte Bobcats 10 days ago, with opponents averaging over 100 points in those four games since.
Defense is the Celtics’ backbone, and Pierce admitted on Monday his team hasn’t had one recently. It’s hard to rattle a team like the C’s are hoping to do with New York if they lack that defensive intensity, so look for it to return – even without the services of Garnett and potentially Lee – Tuesday night.
“Time is winding down going into the playoffs, so the sense of urgency needs to pick up game by game. We have to treat every game here on out as a playoff game,” Pierce said Monday.
If the playoffs began tonight, the Celtics wouldn’t face New York in the first round – that honor would go to the Indiana Pacers. So it’s hard to say Tuesday night will be an actual “playoff preview,” especially given that major players like Garnett and New York’s Tyson Chandler won’t have anything to do with it.
But with Boston looking to right the ship (yet again) and potentially rattle a possible playoff opponent, it should feel like a postseason game.