By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Things looked bleak for the Celtics on Thursday night. Then they looked better. But then they improved once again.
That’s kind of been the story of their season, hasn’t it?
The 2018-19 Boston Celtics have surely taken fans on a number of roller coaster journeys of emotion, with the latest swing providing some hope that it will all end up OK in the end. Thursday’s 126-120 win over the Kings was the latest building block toward that end.
The Celtics fell behind 17-6 early, and they trailed 44-27 early in the second quarter. The Celtics managed to climb out of it and grab a five-point lead early in the fourth quarter, a lead they’d manage to hold on to until the final horn.
Kyrie Irving led the way with a triple-double (31 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists), with Jaylen Brown (22 points off the bench), Marcus Morris (21 points, 13 rebounds), Jayson Tatum (15 points) and Gordon Hayward (10 points) helping to fill up the scoresheet.
It was a good win against a team that’s desperate to try to get back into the Western Conference playoff picture, and it improved the Celtics’ record to 42-27 on the year. That’s markedly worse than most anticipated in the preseason, but it does make you start to wonder exactly how the Celtics might finish this season.
As it stands now, they’re still in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. That would mean, of course, not having home-court advantage at all in the postseason (barring an upset of an eight seed over a one seed).
EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS
1. Milwaukee Bucks, 51-17
2. Toronto Raptors, 49-20, 2.5 GB
3. Indiana Pacers, 44-25, 7.5 GB
4. Philadelphia 76ers, 43-25, 8 GB
5. Boston Celtics, 42-27, 9.5 GB
Obviously, the one and two seeds are runaways. The Pacers, Sixer and Celtics have no chance of climbing that high. The six-seeded Nets are likewise completely out of contention of climbing into the Eastern Conference’s playoff middle class.
So really, has it has been for some time, spots three through five will be determined by however the three current teams in those spots jockey for position.
And in that regard, the Celtics have a pretty good path to advance forward.
With 13 games remaining, the Celtics will play more than half of them — seven games — against teams with sub-.500 records.
The Celtics will be playing five games against teams currently outside the playoff picture.
And though the Celtics do play four games against teams with better records than their own, one of those will be against Philadelphia, and two will be against Indiana — a team that has been barely better than .500 since losing Victor Oladipo in late January.
BOSTON REMAINING SCHEDULE
@ PHI (43-25)
@ CHA (30-37)
@ CLE (17-52)
@ BKN (36-34)
@ MIA (32-35)
@ WSH (29-39)
If the Celtics can play the way they’re capable of playing — and that has been a huge “if” all year long — then there’s really no reason for them to do any worse than, say, a 10-3 record to close out the year with a 52-30 record.
The Pacers, meanwhile, have the Western Conference buzzsaw upcoming — a trip that’ll take them to Denver (45-22), Portland (41-26), the Clippers (39-30), and Golden State (46-21). After that, they’ll have to host the Nuggets before traveling to Oklahoma City and Boston.
INDIANA REMAINING SCHEDULE
@ DEN (45-22)
@ POR (41-26)
@ LAC (39-30)
@ GSW (46-21)
@ OKC (42-27)
@ BOS (42-27)
@ DET (34-33)
Indiana will play just two of its final 13 games against teams with a sub.-500 record, and those are the only two Pacers games that will be played against non-playoff opponents.
The Sixers technically have the easiest road of the three teams fighting for position, as they’ll play nine games against non-playoff, sub-.500 teams the rest of the way. But sprinkled in those final 14 games are two games against Milwaukee, and a game against the Celtics, who always give the Sixers fits.
PHILADELPHIA REMAINING SCHEDULE
@ MIL (51-17)
@ CHA (30-37)
@ ATL (24-45)
@ ORL (32-38)
@ MIN (32-37)
@ DAL (27-41)
@ ATL (27-45)
@ CHI (19-50)
@ MIA (32-35)
That head-to-head meeting between the Celtics and Sixers on March 20 figures to be a big one — not for tie-breaking purposes (the Celtics already own that, with a 3-0 record vs. Philly this year) but merely for the chance to make a move in the standings.
As it stands now, the Celtics are 1.5 games behind the Sixers for the fourth seed, and two games behind Indiana for the three seed. It could be argued that the Celtics might actually benefit most from finishing in fourth, which would thereby lead to them facing the Bucks instead of the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs. (The Celtics are 4-4 vs. the Raptors over the past two years, with all four losses coming in Toronto.) But for the time being, that’s neither here nor there.
Despite a wildly underwhelming regular season to this point, the Celtics have a chance to finish in a spot that gives them home-court advantage for at least one series, which will help give them a fighting chance in an Eastern Conference they were always supposed to win.
That road may have become significantly more difficult than anticipated, but the work the Celtics put forth over the next month will go a long way in alleviating some of that challenge.