By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics are really making life difficult for themselves in the final week of the regular season.
Just a few days ago, it looked like they had a great shot at the top seed in the Eastern Conference. An embarrassing blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at home put that in doubt. Another bad loss Thursday night in Atlanta has all but eliminated that possibility.
Following their 123-116 defeat to the Hawks on Thursday night and with just three games remaining in their season, the Celtics trail the Cavs by 1.5 games. That deficit is essentially two games, as the Cavaliers own the tiebreaker over Boston, winning their regular season series 3-1. So the C’s would basically need to win their final three games while hoping the Cavs go 1-3 or worse in their final four games for the Celtics to jump back on top in the East. The Cavaliers have some tough matchups to close the season, but as we saw Wednesday night at the TD Garden, they are still very much the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And to make things a little more interesting, the Celtics now own just a two-game lead over the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors, who just got Kyle Lowry back from injury, own the tiebreaker over the Celtics, while Boston owns the tiebreaker over the Wizards.
It really shouldn’t be this interesting. Or complicated. Or frustrating. But here we are.
The Celtics should be able to lock up the No. 2 seed over the next three games, with at least one layup on the docket (though as we’ve seen on the floor the last few nights, even layups are not a given). But the Raptors are going to make them work for it, even if Toronto does have a game remaining against the Cavs.
Here are the remaining schedules of the top four teams in the East:
Cleveland Cavaliers (51-27)
Friday vs. Atlanta (40-38)
Sunday @ Atlanta (40-38)
Monday @ Miami (38-40)
Wednesday vs. Toronto (48-31)
Boston Celtics (50-29)
Saturday @ Charlotte (36-43)
Monday vs. Brooklyn (19-60)
Wednesday vs. Milwaukee (40-39)
Toronto Raptors (48-31)
Friday vs. Miami (38-40)
Sunday @ New York (30-49)
Wednesday @ Cleveland (51-27)
Washington Wizards (48-31)
Saturday vs. Miami (38-40)
Monday @ Detroit (35-43)
Wednesday @ Miami (38-40)
If there’s anything beneficial to take out of Thursday night’s loss for Boston, it’s that it propelled Atlanta into the five-seed. Should the standings finish as they are today, the Celtics wouldn’t have to face the Hawks in the first or second round, should the Celtics get to the second round, of course. But that’s good news, given Boston’s struggles against Atlanta the last two seasons.
What’s not great news is Boston’s struggles over the last two games against legit playoff teams, issues that are resurfacing at the worst possible time of the season. After getting crushed by the Cavs on their home floor, the Boston defense allowed 71 points to the Hawks in the first half on Thursday night. The Hawks are one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA.
Despite all the doom and gloom over the last two days, it’s still looking good for the Celtics to claim the No. 2 seed in the East with just six days remaining in the regular season. But the pressure is starting to ramp up. The Celtics need to regain their focus and take care of their own business over these last three games, because if they don’t, they could once again find themselves relying on tiebreakers to determine their seeding.
That didn’t work out so well for them last season, so they need to avoid a repeat of that at all costs.