By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – The Celtics are in the midst of a tight playoff race at the top of the Eastern Conference, but there is one other battle ensuing at the bottom of the NBA standings that Boston fans need to be keeping an eye on in the coming days.
The Phoenix Suns have hit the tank button hard, losing 13 straight games overall and that’s put them back within striking distance of the Brooklyn Nets for the worst record in the NBA in the final week of regular season.
The Celtics own the right to swap with the Nets’ first round pick in 2017 and it was seemingly a foregone conclusion as recently as a month ago that Brooklyn would easily finish as in the NBA cellar. The Nets were 11-53 on March 10 and held close to a double-digit game lead over the Lakers and Suns for the NBA’s worst record for the better part of the last three months.
The tide has started to shift significantly in the win-loss column however as the Nets have gained a clean bill of health for the first time all season in March. With no incentive to tank and an up-and-coming coach in Kenny Atkinson, the Nets have started to find their stride, nearly doubling their season win total since March 10 by going 8-6 in their last 14 games.
The Suns have been able to make up seven games over that stretch thanks to their lengthy losing streak, setting the stage for a tanking showdown in the next six days. Here’s a look at the current standings.
Lottery standings (As of 4/6/2017)
Suns 22-57 (2.5 GB)
LA Lakers 23-55 (4 GB)
The Lakers have fallen out of the mix for the worst record after winning two straight games, victories that will significantly damage their chances of keeping their 2017 draft pick (top-3 protected). What are the odds of the Suns continuing to making up ground and catching the Nets to close out the year? Let’s take a closer look the schedules to find out.
Nets remaining schedule:
At Orlando, vs. Chicago, at Boston, at Chicago
Analysis: The good news here for Boston is that they are in control of their lottery odds at least on one front. The Nets can’t finish lower than a tie for the worst record if they lose one of their final four games. It’s likely the Celtics will still be playing for something on the seeding front when they hosts the Nets at the Garden on Monday night and ensuring keep pace with Suns losing will be extra incentive to play a full roster for Brad Stevens that night.
As for the rest of the schedule, Orlando is starting to pull the plug on players down the stretch as they tank, but the Bulls are in the midst of a playoff race. It’s entirely possible they will be playing for their seasons in both games, making them a tough challenge for the Brooklyn despite their trick-or-treat play all year long.
Bottom Line: A 2-2 record or worse clinches the worst record in NBA for Nets and No. 1 lottery odds for Celtics.
Suns remaining schedule:
At Oklahoma City, vs. Dallas, at Sacramento
Analysis: If Brooklyn finds a way to pull off more than a couple wins in the final week, the other thing Celtics fans should be rooting for is the Suns pulling out a win or two in their final three contests. There’s a better chance of that than you think, since they will be facing a pair of teams angling for solid lottery positioning themselves in Dallas and Sacramento. Veterans for both squads should be resting as front offices try to get a closer look at their young prospects as well as earn those couple extra percentage odds in the lottery standings themselves. Also, Phoenix head coach Earl Watson may not want to head into the offseason on a 16-game losing streak, even if that’s what is ultimately best for the franchise.
Bottom Line: One win from Phoenix should take them out of the running for the worst record. Two wins in their final three clinches it.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.