By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — With just 15 games remaining in the regular season, the Celtics find themselves in a great position to claim one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference.
Anything else should be considered a major disappointment.
The Celtics sit half-a-game up on the Washington Wizards for the No. 2 seed, and just two-and-a-half games behind the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers entering Wednesday night’s slate of games. Of those three teams, the Celtics have the “easiest” remaining schedule. Ten of their remaining 15 will be played in the friendly confines of the TD Garden, where the Celtics are 22-9 this season. They don’t even have to worry about changing their clocks when they hit the road, with all of their games in the Eastern time zone. Meanwhile, the Wizards have to make one final visit out west, a four-game trip that includes games against the Clippers and Warriors, while the Cavs also have a three-game trip against Western Conference foes.
As an added bonus, two of Boston’s remaining road games are against the lowly Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, teams that have combined for just 36 wins this season.
Travel aside, the Celtics’ list of their remaining foes are mostly teams jostling for position at the other end of the standings. Only four of Boston’s remaining games are against opponents with a record of .500 or better (Washington, Indiana, Cleveland and at Atlanta). By contrast, seven of the Wizards’ remaining 17 opponents have a record of .500 or better, while the Cavaliers will play 10 teams with a record of .500 or better.
The Celtics are 26-9 against sub-.500 teams, so they’ve got that going for them the rest of the way. Add it all up and things are set up nicely for the Celtics to claim that No. 2 seed in the East, and possibly even overtake the Cavs. It’s there for the taking, just as long as there are no hiccups along the way — and the Celtics know it. They know they’ve let a few games slip away over the last month, with disappointing losses in Sacramento, Phoenix and Denver all in the back of their minds. Those duds will serve as reminders that nothing can be taken for granted the rest of the way, even with such a cushy schedule to close out the season.
“With 15 games to go, if you get caught up in anything else, you’re going to miss the opportunity at hand,” head coach Brad Stevens told reporters. “We’ll try out of these last 15 games, not only to prepare as well as we can, but play as well as we can and also try to get as fresh as we can.”
“We just have to know what our goal is and what we’re trying to reach at the end. It’s not about who we’re playing, it’s about how we’re playing and how we approach the game,” said Boston guard Isaiah Thomas. “If we approach it with respect and the way we know how to play, we’ll take care of business. If not, we’ll be up and down like we have been.
“Everyone is realizing what’s at stake. Guys are locking in,” Thomas added. “We understand what is at stake and that we have to play every game like it’s our last. The race is close, so we have to be ready for what ever team throws at us.”
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That’s the sentiment echoing through the Boston locker room with one month left until the postseason. The disappointing losses are a fresh reminder, and the Celtics can also look back to last season, when their up-and-down play down the stretch (when the C’s went 10-8 to close the season) meant they weren’t in control of their own fate, and had to rely on the NBA’s wacky tie-breakers to decided the final seeding. In the end, the Celtics finished as the fifth seed, and we all remember how that worked out.
Those final tilts against the Wizards, Cavaliers and Hawks are no doubt circled on calendars around Boston, and the C’s are probably looking toward them as good tune-ups for the postseason. But they can’t lose focus of any of their opponents, even if the oppositions record may say otherwise. It was their sporadic play down the stretch last season that kept the Celtics from having home-court in the first round, and cost them some much-needed confidence entering their series against the Hawks. Avoiding a repeat is crucial.
With both the Wizards breathing down their necks and the Cavaliers within their sights, that should provide all the motivation the Celtics need over the next month. But they need to just focus on what they can control, aware that any sort of stumble leading up to the playoffs could be costly.