When the NBA announced it would continue the play-in series for teams that finish 7-10 in each conference, the news did not figure to affect the Celtics very much. After all, they came within two wins of reaching the NBA Finals last year, and their young stars were positioned to continue their ascensions.
But now, it must be considered a possibility. The Celtics vaulted past the Knicks and into seventh place with a 101-99 victory Thursday. They are were still just a half-game behind the Heat and Hornets, and one game behind the fourth-place Hawks. But time for a surge is beginning to run out, with just 20 games remaining.
“We all need to play as well as we can on a given night to have success,” coach Brad Stevens said. “But somebody is going to finish in that group, and when they do they’re going to have to get ready to perform, and if you do it well then you can be in the real tournament.”
In the play-in tournament, the eighth seed will visit the seventh seed, and the winner of that game will become the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The ninth seed will face the 10th seed, and the winner of that game will face the loser of the other game to determine the No. 8 slot.
“I think it’s a good idea from a fan engagement standpoint,” Stevens said. “It’s a little bit unique in a 72-game season. But I understand the desire to do it, and we hope, just like New York hopes, just like every other team in this mix of teams hopes, that you’re able to find your way above that. But, if not, you play the games you’re assigned to play.”
Celtics center Tristan Thompson was cleared to return Wednesday after being sidelined since March 11 because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols. He had 7 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. the Celtics were plus-24 when he was on the court.
“We need Tristan back,” Stevens said. “Obviously with the [Daniel] Theis trade, it is enormous to have him back. And I thought that he’ll play a lot when Rob [Williams] is not. But I thought that Luke [Kornet] came in and showed us that he can do some things [against the 76ers], and Moe [Wagner] has done some things, and I thought Tacko [Fall] did OK last night, too. We’re going to need everybody, but there’s no doubt that our center rotation will start with Rob and Tristan.”
Knicks on the rise
The season has been a disappointment for the Celtics but it has offered signs of hope for New York, which is pushing toward its first playoff berth since the 2012-13 season.
“I have a great deal of respect for the way they’ve played all year,” Stevens said. “It feels like every game I watch, the way that they set a tone for the game and the physicality that they play with up and down that roster, with some really talented players, it’s a big reason why they are where they are. They’ve done a good job.”