The possibility is looming there, uncomfortably, like a cliff’s edge that’s migrating closer to its nearest visitors, threatening their once steady footing.
The Celtics are trying to evade it, but they’ve only drawn themselves toward it by stacking their loss column with fresh defeats.
It’s still unlikely that Boston will fall from the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed to the eighth, guaranteeing a first-round playoff date with Miami, if only because the team in the eighth seed, Milwaukee, is terrible and playing even worse of late.
But after the Celtics fell to Cleveland, 97-91, Friday at TD Garden, coach Doc Rivers finally admitted that if he had a choice, his team would like to avoid Miami in the postseason’s first round.
“Of course we would,” he said. “Listen, I’m not dumb. I’m not the brightest guy, but come on.”
Milwaukee lost in New York on Friday, meaning Boston, with six games left, ended the night 2½ games ahead of the Bucks and the eighth seed.
Five of Milwaukee’s seven remaining games are on the road, where it will face teams such as Miami, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City. With that gantlet alone, the Celtics have some breathing room in their quest to avoid Miami off the bat — if that’s indeed what they want.
“I don’t care when we play them,” guard Jason Terry said. “We could play them in the summer league, rec league, it don’t matter. That’s just a special rivalry for me and it should be for everybody else in this locker room.
“At one point or another, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll play them, hopefully.”
Right now, the only goals the Celtics should have is returning their star players to the parquet and earning a few regular-season wins to help build momentum.
The Celtics achieved neither of those goals Friday as they lost for the eighth time in 11 games, though this defeat seemed almost preordained because neither Kevin Garnett nor Paul Pierce were a part of it.
Garnett sat out with inflammation in his left ankle and Pierce sat with a sore left ankle. The two missed the Celtics’ game Monday at Minnesota; that, too, was a loss.
Rivers said he felt his team had no expectation to win against the Timberwolves, instead thinking, “Well, let’s show up and see what happens and maybe we can win.”
“I thought at least [vs. Cleveland], with all those guys out, they believed they could win,” Rivers said. “I mean, they were disappointed, so that was good.”
Cleveland snapped its 10-game losing streak behind forward Tristan Thompson, who set career highs in points (29) and rebounds (17) as the Celtics were once again pounded down low without Garnett, their defensive landlord.
Forward Alonzo Gee had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Cleveland outrebounded the Celtics, 58-42, outscored them in the paint, 52-38, and beat them on second-chance points, 19-12.
“We got killed inside, again,” Rivers said, a theme in the last eight games that Garnett has missed.
Boston also did itself no favors at the free throw line, where it made 13 of 22.
The game turned in the second half, when the Cavaliers used a 27-6 run to go up 14.
The Celtics did make a charge, coming to within 87-83 on a Terry corner 3-pointer that capped a 15-5 run with 5:46 left in the fourth. But the Cavaliers scored two straight buckets to stop the surge, and the Celtics never got closer than 4 from there.
Kyrie Irving was hounded by the Celtics’ Avery Bradley for most of the night and it showed in the box score, where Irving scored 11 points on 4-of-20 shooting.
“He’s a great defender,” the All-Star guard said of Bradley, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a bruised collarbone.
“We just couldn’t go over the hump,” said Jeff Green, who scored a team-high 23 and grabbed nine rebounds. “We put ourselves in a great position to win the game. We just didn’t catch any breaks.”
The breaks Green spoke of, at least in part, were fouls. He had four and was limited because of it.
Shavlik Randolph scored a career-high 16 points and had seven rebounds off the bench, but his night lasted just 13 minutes before he fouled out.
And Terry was tagged for a flagrant-1 foul when he plowed through C.J. Miles in the backcourt early in the fourth quarter.
Miles made both free throws, putting Cleveland ahead by 10.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding it out,” Terry said after scoring 8 points off the bench.
“With the numbers down the way they are, it’s always tough, especially when you get in a tight game and you’ve got guys like Kevin and Paul Pierce who are your closers [being out]. It’s always tough on you. It is what it is.
“Hopefully we’ll get those guys back here soon and all that will be over with.”
Rivers said both Garnett and Pierce could return as soon as Sunday against Washington, which would provide a much-needed boost.
Rivers also made it clear that while his team would like to avoid Miami in the first round, it will be ready no matter the matchup.
“No matter who we play,” he added, “we’re going to play a tough team. It’s going to be New York, Indiana, or Miami. There are no cakewalks for us. It’s going to be hard.”
Nor will these remaining regular-season games be cakewalks for these Celtics, especially if the club continues to be without its most important players.