Outwardly, the Celtics were a bit coy about their extra motivation to defeat the Grizzlies on Tuesday night. But there was no mistaking that the result could affect their future.
It’s unclear what will happen to the first-round draft pick Boston will eventually receive from Memphis, but the Celtics’ resounding 122-107 victory could end up having an impact.
By now, this choice has been so well-documented that most fans can recite the pick’s various protections and contingencies. But here is one more refresher. The Celtics’ will receive the Grizzlies’ pick this season as long as it falls outside the top six. If the pick lands in the top six, it will roll over to next season, when it will become fully unprotected.
Memphis was one of the NBA’s surprising teams this year. When the season was halted due to COVID-19 on March 11, the Grizzlies were comfortably in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, 3.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Trail Blazers.
If the season had never resumed, the Celtics would have received the 17th overall pick. It’s never bad to get a mid-first-round pick, but that essentially would have been the worst possible outcome for Boston, particularly since the Grizzlies were slated to have one of the toughest schedules in the league down the stretch.
But then it was announced that the season would restart in Orlando, with a twist. Teams would play eight seeding games, and if the ninth-place team was within four games of the eighth-place team when that portion of the schedule concluded, those teams would have a playoff for the final spot. The ninth-place team would be eliminated after one loss, but the eighth-place team would have to lose twice.
This was done partly to give trailing teams a chance, since their number of remaining games had been sliced from about 20 to eight, and partly to maintain interest in the seeding games as they progressed and the top teams mostly had little to play for.
The situation worked out quite well for the NBA, but not so great for the Grizzlies. As the Suns, Blazers and Spurs vaulted toward the No. 8 spot, Memphis withered, losing six of seven games. And on Tuesday night, when the Celtics defeated the Grizzlies and the Blazers defeated the Mavericks, Memphis ceded the No. 8 spot for the first time in months.
With one game remaining, Portland holds a half-game lead on the Grizzlies, Spurs, and Suns. Since teams had played varying numbers of games when the season was stopped, it will result in some imperfect pictures in the standings.
But the bottom line is that if the Blazers defeat the Nets on Thursday, they will lock up the No. 8 spot for the 8/9 playoff. The Grizzlies and Spurs have identical records, so if Memphis topples the Bucks, they will be in the No. 9 spot thanks to a tiebreaker.
The Suns are technically tied for ninth, but they are percentage points behind because they have played fewer games. The Spurs face the Jazz on Thursday, and the Suns play the Mavericks.
For the Bucks, the decision for Thursday’s game seems obvious. The Celtics are perhaps the team best positioned to challenge them in the East for years to come. Milwaukee has already clinched the No. 1 seed and has nothing to play for. If it rests its top players and helps put Memphis into the playoff, it will potentially cost the Celtics a lottery pick.
If the Grizzlies end up in the playoff against the Blazers as the No. 9 seed — perhaps the most likely outcome at the moment — the odds will be stacked heavily against them. Portland was crushed by injuries this season but is now finally healthy, and Damian Lillard has been the best player in Orlando. Furthermore, Memphis would need to win twice while Portland would need to win just once.
If the Grizzlies drop into the lottery at the No. 9 spot, it would put them in the No. 14 overall draft position, giving them just a 2.4 percent chance of vaulting into the top four via ping-pong ball luck (it is impossible for Memphis to get the No. 5 or 6 pick this season). If that happens, the Celtics would get their unprotected pick next year.
With young stars like Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson, and the addition of a top-four pick, it’s certainly possible that the Grizzlies could become a playoff team next season. But Celtics executives would prefer that the pick roll into next year anyway, because the potential reward could be massive.