The final week of the NBA regular season is here and the Celtics have no idea who they will play in the first round of the playoffs or even if Game 1 will occur next weekend at TD Garden.
After their 144-102 win over the Washington Wizards on Sunday, the Celtics are No. 2 in the Eastern Conference, two games behind Miami with three left to play.
The schedule makers set up the team’s most difficult road trip of the season for last, with the Celtics heading to Chicago, Milwaukee and Memphis for their final three regular-season games. The trip is tricky because coach Ime Udoka has no idea if those last three opponents will play their full roster or whether Chicago and Milwaukee will rest its star players.
The Bulls are the most difficult to figure out because they are currently tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fifth seedwith four games to play. The team that lands the fifth seed will face the Celtics, Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.
More confounding is that the Bulls play the Bucks on Tuesday. Would they rather face the Celtics or 76ers in the first round? If that’s the case, do they lose to the Bucks, hoping Milwaukee overtakes the Celtics for the No. 2 seed?
If the Bulls win, they pull the Bucks closer to the fourth seed, which could set up a first-round matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo. And let’s say they lose to the Bucks on Tuesday, do they play a full roster and try to beat the Celtics, bettering their chances for a first-round matchup with Boston?
It’s complicated. The Bucks host the Celtics on Thursday, in a game Milwaukee needs to even the season series in case of a tiebreaker. The Celtics beat the Bucks twice in the first two months of the season before losing Christmas Day at Milwaukee. A Celtics win increases their chances at a top three seed.
Of course, Udoka said the primary goal is to rest his top players and also play the best basketball of the season. Adding to that quandary is Udoka’s attempt to play different rotations to compensate for the absence of Robert Williams, for at least the first round.
“Based on results and whatever happens around us,” Udoka said Monday. “It’s a back-to-back, so we’re just taking Chicago first and it has to do with opponents and what they are doing as well. Health and playing well are the keys, but seedings and standings kind of determine what plays into it afterwards.
“Playing our best basketball and playing well, that kind of lends into winning. It’s too much to determine based on what other teams are trying to do.”
The season finale at Memphis likely has little significance for the Grizzlies. They are locked into the second seed in the Western Conference and have no reason to win besides pride. But then again, the Grizzlies have played their best basketball shorthanded, so whatever lineup they’ll use on Sunday is likely to be capable of winning.
All-Star Ja Morant has missed the past seven games with a sore knee and is not likely to return until the playoffs. But coach Taylor Jenkins could give Morant a few minutes Sunday to get some work prior to the postseason. In terms of the standings, the Grizzlies will have nothing to play for in the finale.
They will play the seventh seed, which will be the winner of Utah/Minnesota and the Los Angeles Clippers, in the play-in game.
The worst the Celtics could finish in the East — if they lost all three games and Toronto/Chicago won out — is sixth. The Raptors have the most favorable schedule with home games against Atlanta and Philadelphia and then games against the lottery-bound Houston Rockets and New York Knicks.
The Bulls have the most difficult schedule with the Bucks, Celtics, Charlotte Hornets and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Hornets and Timberwolves are each fighting for playoff positioning and could use wins, so the Bulls are unlikely to make it through this stretch undefeated.
The Bucks have the Bulls, Celtics, improving Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are likely headed for the first play-in spot but need a couple of wins to secure a home game. The 76ers have the easiest schedule of the top four seeds, with two games against Indiana, a matchup with Detroit and a road game at Toronto.
Miami helped itself greatly with a win at Toronto on Sunday, despite sitting out several key players. The Heat end the season with the Hornets, Hawks and Orlando Magic. Miami would clinch the No. 1 seed with a win or two.
But where everybody else shakes out is yet to be determined, the play-in tournament element has added the intrigue the NBA wanted for the final week of the season.
“[I’ve never seen] nothing like this, where one and four are so highly contested,” Udoka said. “This is totally different because of six teams in the mix. If our seeding was set, we could map out our last week.”