By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics wrapped up their exhibition schedule on Tuesday night, sacrificing their bench players as the Houston Rockets starters poured in points down in Orlando. Boston’s starters received their final tuneup on Sunday, and now their focus will be on the eight seeding games ahead of the start of the NBA playoffs.
But do those seeding games mean anything for Boston, at least from a standings perspective? Not really. What really matters is the Celtics getting back to being the team that surprised much of the NBA throughout the regular season, before the coronavirus brought everything to a screeching halt.
The value of the seeding games lies more in knocking off any lingering rust from a four-month layoff and rebuilding the team’s chemistry of the regular season. They’ll give everyone a clearer picture of how Kemba Walker’s knee reacts to some real NBA action — and how Walker handles his minutes restriction. We’ll see if Jayson Tatum can continue his ascension to superstardom. With Boston’s starting five set and Marcus Smart and Enes Kanter locked in as the first players off the bench, the games will give Brad Stevens a chance to iron out the rest of his bench rotation.
But as far as the outcomes, there wont be too much riding on those eight contests ahead of the playoffs. And the Celtics seem to know that. They’re firmly entrenched in the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, and as long as they beat the Miami Heat (sitting 2.5 games back of Boston in the standings) next Tuesday, they should remain there. They have a slight chance of jumping up to the No 2 seed, but the Toronto Raptors appear to have a handle on that slot, three games up on Boston.
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The Celtics would probably like to avoid a first-round meeting with the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that beat them three out of the four times they met in the regular season. The Sixers were a mess before the league’s break, but have looked pretty good in Orlando. If nothing changes in the standings, they would be Boston’s first round matchup. It’s not ideal, but whom the Celtics face in the first round is out of their control. And if they want to compete for a title, they’re going to have to beat good teams along the way.
Mix in the fact that home court advantage no longer exists inside the NBA bubble, and the seeding games, though they technically count in the standings, really don’t mean too much in terms of wins and losses. And that goes for a handful of the teams that are living inside the bubble.
Where they matter is the progress the team shows against some solid competition, and that will be the focus for Stevens and company. The mantra of the Celtics in Orlando has consistently been that the team needs to be at their best on August 17, the start of the playoffs. That has not changed after three exhibition games, with the restarted season just days away.
“We have to get better as a team,” Stevens said after Tuesday night’s loss to Houston. “I’ve seen good strides from Oklahoma City to Phoenix to the practices, and now the next couple of days have to be really good. The team we’re playing on Friday — I’m not surprised at the numbers they’re putting up this year.”
That team would be the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that really doesn’t really have much to play for over the next two weeks. Giannis and his herd dominated the NBA all the way up to the coronavirus hiatus, with very few teams showing the ability to slow them down. They’re locked into the No. 1 seed and really won’t play a meaningful basketball game until the second round of the playoffs.
The fact that Milwaukee is Boston’s first test post-break is something Stevens is thrilled about. Whether the Bucks are going full bore or not, they’re still a formidable foe and will give Boston a good idea of where they stand when play resumes.
“We’re going to find out a lot more about us on Friday. Those guys come at you full steam ahead on both ends of the floor,” said Stevens. “Milwaukee is at a different level, and that will be a great test for us. Nobody has been at that level all year, so that’s where everyone is shooting for. From our standpoint, we have to make sure we’re locked in on both ends of the floor.
“That’s why I’m excited about playing them first. We’re going to know a lot,” the coach added.
The games resume for the Celtics on Friday night, but they won’t start to really matter until the playoffs arrive in mid-August. We’re not saying don’t watch the seeding games, because basketball is basketball, and we all need a nice little distraction at the moment.
But until the playoffs arrive, it’ll be all about the Celtics getting back to Celtics basketball.