By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There are only three days remaining in the NBA regular season, but the Boston Celtics could still finish anywhere from first to third in the Eastern Conference standings. A huge collapse by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday afternoon against Atlanta has put the top seed back in play for the Green with just two games left to play.
Here’s a look at all the potential playoff scenarios in play for Boston and what the odds are of them finishing in each spot heading into the postseason:
CLE over BOS
TOR over BOS
The Celtics win the No. 1 seed if:
–They win their final two games (vs. BKN, vs. MIL) and the Cavaliers lose at least one of their final two games (@ MIA, vs. TOR)
–They win at least one of their final two games (vs. BKN vs. MIL) and the Cavaliers lose BOTH of their final two games (@ MIA, vs. TOR)
Odds of C’s winning No. 1 seed: 20 percent
The good news here for Boston fans is that the Cavs will be facing a motivated opponent in at least one of their last two contests. Miami is just one game out of a playoff spot in the East and will be rested at home as they face a Cavs team Monday night on the second end of their back-to-back. Ty Lue has insisted he won’t rest his guys until they clinch the No. 1 seed, but they are bound to be a bit tired after an overtime affair in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon.
The other wildcard in this scenario is how the Raptors handle their game on Wednesday night in Cleveland. If the Celtics win on Monday, Toronto will have nothing to play for in the standings, since they will be locked into the No. 3 seed. If the C’s stumble against the Nets on Monday night though, the Raptors will be playing with a chance at the second seed on Wednesday. That’s an unlikely scenario (since the C’s should win Monday), but it would serve as a silver lining for Boston if they do in fact lose to Brooklyn Monday night.
The bottom line here is the Celtics jumping up to the top seed isn’t favored to happen, but is not that far-fetched either. Boston will be favored against Brooklyn and Milwaukee, while Miami will only be a slight underdog with their season on the line against Cleveland. The odds favor the Raptors resting their starters in the regular season finale, so C’s fans need to be rooting hard for the Heat against the Cavs Monday if they want to keep the No. 1 seed dream realistically in play for Boston.
One other element that could come into play: The possibility exists Brad Stevens could forego chasing the No. 1 seed in favor of resting his players on Wednesday night (if the No. 2 seed is clinched). However, when you factor in potentially avoiding Toronto in the second round for Boston, you have to think Stevens will keep his foot on the gas until the end.
The Celtics will earn at least the No. 2 seed if:
–They win at least one of their final two games or the Raptors lose their regular season finale in Cleveland Thursday night.
Odds of Celtics finishing with at least No. 2 seed: 70 percent
It’s not a stone cold lock that the Celtics are going to win one of their final two games, but it’s not far from one either. The Nets are playing much better of late (4-1 in their last five games), so they won’t be a walkover on Monday night. But that’s still a team simply playing for pride at this point. The Bucks may or may not be playing for seeding on Wednesday night, but the Celtics will be the more motivated team that evening if the No. 1 or No. 2 seed is on the line.
One thing that the Celtics can’t count on is the Raptors losing to the Cavs if the No. 2 seed remains in play. Toronto is rolling right now (8-2 in last 10 games) and they may be facing a resting Cleveland team in the finale (a Celtics loss and a Cavs win on Monday would clinch No. 1 seed for Cleveland). Boston needs to take care of their own business against Brooklyn or Milwaukee to feel secure about holding on to the No. 2 seed, but the odds are heavily in favor of them doing so.
The Celtics will fall to the No. 3 seed if:
–They lose their final two games and the Raptors beat the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Toronto would be tied with Boston in the standings and own the tiebreaker over Boston by winning the season series 3-1.
Odds of Celtics finishing with No. 3 seed: 10 percent
I spent much of the last section discussing the factors that could go into this scenario, so I won’t rehash them here. The only thing that might help Boston avoid this disaster is if the Cavs also lose Monday night to Miami. That would give them something to play for Wednesday night against the Raptors (even if the C’s also lose Monday). This possibility wouldn’t outright save the Celtics from falling to the No. 3 seed, but it would give them a better chance of avoiding it if they drop their final two games.
Is there any chance of a three-way tie between Boston, Toronto and Cleveland?
Yes, but that would be bad news for Boston. If the Celtics and Cavs lose out and the Raptors win Wednesday, all three teams would be tied with a 51-31 record. Cleveland would be the No. 1 seed since they own the head-to-head tiebreakers over Toronto and Boston and are division winners. The the Raptors would take No. 2 seed from there (via their head-to-head tiebreaker over Boston) and the Celtics would fall to No. 3 overall in the East.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.