The Celtics are resigned to their fate. When they got off to a 14-4 start following the season-ending injury to Rajon Rondo, there were illusions of a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs, perhaps even a sixth consecutive Atlantic Division title.
Those were delusions. The Celtics will likely finish seventh unless they can make up a 1½-game deficit on the Atlanta Hawks (the Celtics have a game in hand). Regardless of their positioning, the Celtics have been through enough playoff obstacles over the years to remain confident.
They reached the NBA Finals in 2010 as the fourth seed in the East, and last season they reached the conference finals as the fifth seed. The 2008 championship gave the franchise the swagger and fortitude to thrive in the postseason, but making it through as the sixth or seventh seed without Rondo might be their greatest feat.
There is much to accomplish in the final five games, starting Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets. The Celtics have to get accustomed to playing with their bigger starting lineup featuring Jeff Green, and they would like to send some messages to Brooklyn, Miami, and Indiana along this final route to the playoffs.
“Like I said, we’ve shown the ability to beat the teams at the top,” said forward Paul Pierce . “The only main concern is maintaining that level of play for a consistent amount of games. We’ve been up. We’ve been down. We’ve won six. We’ve lost four. Hopefully we can hit our stride this coming week going into the playoffs. If so, I like our chances against anybody in the East.”
The Celtics have beaten all of the six seeds ahead of them, with coach Doc Rivers patching together lineups because of injuries. Inserting Green into the starting lineup gives the club more offense, allows Pierce to slide into shooting guard, and gives opposing teams matchup problems.
Of course, the Celtics could have similar problems when opposing teams feature quicker, smaller shooting guards such as Miami’s Dwyane Wade or New York’s J.R. Smith, but the bigger lineup could serve as a pleasant surprise.
“I think [opposing] teams will go back and forth on it,” Rivers said. “I think teams are trying to figure out which way they would guard.”
The remaining five games will serve as an opportunity for the Celtics to become sharper with the big lineup and also allow the reserves to develop more chemistry.
“I think our guys can see the playoffs are coming,” Rivers said. “They’re getting more focused and more excited about it. The playoffs are different, more intense. It’s a singular opponent seven times, that’s the mind-set you have. And after Game 1, they know exactly what you’re doing and you know exactly what they’re doing and it ups the intensity even more. Playoffs expose your weakness, whereas the regular season pretty much hides a lot of them. Our key is hopefully as a staff, we know what our weaknesses are and we are going to have to mask them as best as we can for the playoffs.”
Pierce and Kevin Garnett practiced Tuesday, each recovering from ankle injuries. Garnett continues to rave about his health after an eight-game absence, which appeared to allow him to take a breather and rest other ailments.
Given the good health and some cohesion the team has established, Garnett said he is anticipating the playoffs.
“I think as a team we’re very confident,” he said. “Since I’ve been here we’ve always been a close-knit group and we’ve never sought out to say that we were going to do X, Y or Z, but we’ve always during the playoffs taken it one game at a time and focused on each game that comes.
“Our rhythm is important. Chemistry is important. Everybody wants to go into the playoffs playing well and having a rhythm and having that chemistry. Those are important things we need.”
Rivers said the team watched “42,” the soon-to-be released biopic on baseball great Jackie Robinson on Monday and it served as a bonding period.
“It was fantastic, it was a great team message,” Rivers said. “You think race, but it was more of a team message when the players on the Brooklyn Dodgers accepted Jackie and a lot of them because he was their teammate. I thought that was cool.”
Meanwhile, Rivers had some few choice words for buddy Terry Francona, the former Sox manager now in Cleveland, who admitted he got lost on his two-block walk to Progressive Field for the home opener against the Yankees.
“That’s a sad, sad thing, I’m so disappointed in Terry,” Rivers said laughing. “Getting lost going out to have a drink with me, I can see that. But getting lost going to the ballpark? My gosh. I didn’t know you could get lost walking. I guess you can.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe