By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — One thing we know about the Celtics’ trip to the NBA playoffs is they’ll be one of the Eastern Conference’s top two seeds.
Everything else is up in the air with just over a week to go in the regular season.
The Celtics have won six in a row and seven of their last eight, putting them just two games back of the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference. Both teams are on the road on Tuesday night before the Celtics travel to Toronto for their final regular season meeting on Wednesday evening. That tilt could go a long way in deciding where both teams sit in the final standings.
Both the Celtics and Raptors have six games remaining, though Toronto has a much tougher slate the rest of the way. After they visit Cleveland and play host to the Celtics, the Raptors will square off against two other Eastern Conference playoff teams before the regular season concludes, hosting the Indiana Pacers on Friday and visiting the Miami Heat in their final game of the season. They also host the 22-54 Orlando Magic and visit the Detroit Pistons (fighting for the No. 8 seed in the East) in between.
Boston, meanwhile, visits the Bucks on Tuesday in a potential first-round preview before making their trip up north, hosts the tanking Bulls and Hawks, visits the Wizards in another potential first-round preview, and closes the season at home against the Brooklyn Nets. If that finale doesn’t mean anything, the Celtics could mess with that lottery pick they sent to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving swap and give the Nets a free W (not that something like that has ever happened in the NBA).
Where the Celtics will end up in the standings and who they’ll play in the first round both remain a mystery, but their potential opponents have been whittled down to three likely candidates: Washington, Miami and Milwaukee (there’s a slim, slim, slim chance the Pacers drop, but it remains highly unlikely they’ll lose all five of their remaining games). Boston will likely be taking on any of those three without Irving, which is no easy task, but that is no excuse for falling to at least two of three those possible foes in the first round.
Let’s take a quick look where those teams stand, and how they’ve fared against Boston during the regular season.
Games remaining (5): @ Houston, @ Cleveland, vs. Atlanta, vs. Boston, @ Orlando
Record vs. Celtics: 2-1
Washington is a game up on Miami and Milwaukee for the six-seed entering a difficult game against the West-leading Rockets on Tuesday night, so they could be moving down. Their trips to Cleveland and Boston are also no gimmies, but the Wizards have to be feeling good about themselves with John Wall returning to action last week. They are also the most worrisome of the trio of teams that Boston could face when the playoffs get underway.
The Wiz hate the Celtics, who got the best of them in that dramatic seven-game series in the second round last postseason. It doesn’t matter that pretty much every Celtic from that series is now wearing a different uniform, and Marcus Smart (public enemy No. 1 for the Wizards) probably won’t even play — they still hate the Celtics. It’s weird, but that’s the NBA.
They’ve also gotten the best of Boston in two of their three regular season matchups so far. Wall and Beal combined for 46 points in Washington’s 111-103 win in Boston on Christmas Day, pulling off a nice comeback with a frustrating 12-0 run in the fourth quarter. It was Boston’s third loss in four games, but lit a fire under them and sparked a seven-game win streak.
The Celtics won the next matchup, 110-104 in overtime in the nation’s capital, as Kyrie Irving scored 12 of Boston’s last 17 points. Both Wall and Beal struggled that game, missing 20 of their 27 shots.
Their most recent matchup was a double overtime thriller at the Garden, despite the fact that both teams were missing their star point guards. Six Celtics scored in double figures with Marcus Morris leading the way with 31 points. Terry Rozier added 21 and Jayson Tatum had 19, but the rookie missed a potential game-winning jumper (instead of taking it to the basket) at the end of the second extra session. Beal led the way for Washington with 34.
While the Celtics should beat the Wizards in a first-round meeting, they would pose the most difficult opponent in the opening round with Wall back in action. Add in that fire stemming from last postseason, and it would certainly make for an entertaining series, and an early challenge for Boston. Let’s hope they remain in the six seed.
Games remaining (5): vs. Atlanta, @ Atlanta, @ New York, vs. Oklahoma City, vs. Toronto
Record vs. Celtics: 2-1
The Heat and Bucks have identical records, but Miami owns the tie-breaker and currently sits in the seven-seed, so they would draw Boston in the first round if the playoffs started tonight. They don’t, so maybe we won’t have to watch Kelly Olynyk spend the majority of a 4-7 game series on the floor for no apparent reason.
Miami also owns a winning record against the Celtics this season, taking the last two regular season matchups. Boston won in Miami at the end of October, part of their 16-game streak, only to fall in the sunshine state three weeks later to snap that streak. The Celtics were down by as many as 18 and trialed by 14 points in the fourth quarter before storming back, but their rally came up short as Dion Waters sank a pair of threes in the final minutes.
The Celtics welcomed Olynyk back to Boston with a tribute video (because of course they did) on December 20, and he thanked them by scoring a career-high 32 points. Boston only shot 37.5 percent in the game and Kyrie missed a buzzer beater at the end, which started another three-losses-in-four-games stretch for the C’s.
Miami has a decent enough lineup with Goran Dragic and an emerging Josh Richardson, but Waiters is out for the year and big man Hassan Whiteside is now beefing with head coach Erik Spoelstra about his playing time (Whiteside is just getting back after missing two weeks with a hip injury). An elderly Dwayne Wade was added at the trade deadline for leadership off the bench, but the 36-year-old remains a shell of his former self. The biggest concern with D-Wade is he takes someone out on a borderline (dirty) play, which is the last thing the Celtics need at the moment. All that being said, the Heat are probably the best case scenario for Boston in the first round.
Games remaining (5): vs. Boston, vs. Brooklyn, @ New York, vs. Orlando, @Philadelphia
Record vs. Celtics: 1-2
We finally have a possible opponent with a losing record against the Celtics. After taking their first matchup of the season in Boston, the night after the Celtics fell to the Cavaliers on opening night and Gordon Hayward fell on his ankle in a way that still haunts most people, the Celtics have won each of their last two showdowns. They won 96-89 on that unique (read: hideous) MECCA floor in Milwaukee as Al Horford dropped 27 points and nine rebounds while also playing some stellar D on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak scored 40 in a Dec. 4 visit to Boston, but Kyrie dropped 19 of his 32 points in the second half and Horford had an all-around night with 20 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a 111-100 Celtics victory.
Antetokounmpo is the best player the Celtics would face in the first round, and he averaged 35 points against them in their three matchups heading into Tuesday night. That isn’t great by any stretch. However, he’s had to work for those points, taking an average of 22.3 shots against the C’s. He’s still shooting 55 percent against the Celtics, which also isn’t very encouraging on paper, but Horford has been one of the better defenders on the behemoth this season. And when the playoffs roll around, much more emphasis will be placed on Giannis’ supporting cast, which consists of Khris Middelton, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon.
Containing Antetokounmpo over a seven-game series is a pretty heavy assignment, but one Brad Stevens should have his team ready for should it come to that.
If things shake out Boston’s way, they’ll get the Heat in the first round while the Raptors deal with Giannis and his Bucks and the Cavaliers get to deal with the Wizards. But with eight days remaining in the regular season, a lot can change in the playoff picture.