MEMPHIS — When the Celtics stepped off their plane Saturday afternoon, forward Al Horford could hardly contain his excitement under the warm Tennessee sun.
“Game 82!” he yelled to his teammates. “Yo, game 82!”
Not only had Boston finally arrived at the end of a long, challenging, and at times frustrating season, it had arrived there in a good place. In January, this team was languishing in 11th place, unsure if it would even reach the postseason. Now, anything seemed possible.
“We made it through the season,” Horford said Sunday night, after his team’s 139-110 romp over the Grizzlies had clinched the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. “We’re at the point we want to be.”
Across the NBA on Sunday, top teams were holding stars out of regular-season finales in order to preserve them for the playoffs, influence their seeding, or both. But for the Celtics, it was business as usual.
Coach Ime Udoka has been consistent in his belief that his top players would benefit from one last good run together, especially with a week off looming while the play-in tournament is being held. He was fine with whatever happened elsewhere.
And when the Bucks, who sat all of their top players, lost to the Cavaliers earlier Sunday it created new possibilities. With a win against Memphis, the Celtics would secure the No. 2 spot. There was some question about whether that would be ideal, considering Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Nets are lined up as a potential first-round opponent. But the Celtics were unconcerned about that possibility.
“We’re not trying to dodge anybody,” point guard Payton Pritchard said. “We believe in ourselves. Go in and whoever we play, we’re going to be ready.”
Boston will face the winner of Tuesday’s play-in game between the Nets and Cavaliers in the opening round beginning Sunday. The Celtics insist they have no preference about their opponent, and they would be silly to say otherwise. But they would also be silly to truly believe that.
The Cavaliers might be formidable in the coming years, but they are not yet. The Nets might have a porous defense, but they also have two of the most dynamic scorers this game has ever seen. And they could add former All-Star Ben Simmons to the fold.
Brooklyn could pose a real challenge, but it is also likely to enter the series as an underdog, a massive shift from last year, when it flicked away the seventh-seeded Celtics as if they were gum on the bottom of a sneaker.
“I think we’re really confident,” Pritchard said. “I think we believe in ourselves and we only have one goal in mind. Obviously, it starts one playoff series at a time, but we’re ready.”
The Celtics will not look past their first-round opponent, but moving into the No. 2 seed could prove more valuable later, with Boston positioned to have home-court advantage in a conference semifinals matchup against third-seeded Milwaukee, the defending champions.
For now, the Celtics just want to find out who they will be facing. Udoka said the players will get a couple of days off to rest and recharge, and he and his coaching staff will pore over Tuesday’s play-in game between Cleveland and Brooklyn.
“It will be good to have some clarity,” Udoka said, “and focus on two teams.”
Sunday’s matchup against the Grizzlies once looked like it would be one of the most difficult of the Celtics’ season. But Memphis has been locked into the No. 2 spot in the West for some time, so after giving his regulars a final dress rehearsal in Saturday’s rout of the Pelicans, coach Taylor Jenkins gave seven of his top eight scorers a night off.
By the time the game began, the Celtics knew that the Bucks had lost and the Nets had won. The only remaining drama involved the 76ers’ game against the Pistons.
If Philadelphia won and Boston lost, the Celtics would slide to fourth, setting up a matchup against the 5th-seeded Raptors. Udoka said he occasionally glanced at the out-of-town scoreboard in FedEx Forum, but it quickly became irrelevant as Boston surged to an early lead and never relinquished it — a common occurrence during its ascension.
The Celtics led by as many as 26 points in the first half despite committing 12 turnovers. And the lopsided score ensured that it would at least be a light night for Boston’s stars, even though they were among the few across the league actually playing. Jayson Tatum finished with 31 points and nine rebounds in just 26 minutes, and Jaylen Brown added 18 points.
Boston finishes the regular season with 51 wins and plenty of momentum. The looming tasks will be substantial, but the Celtics believe they are ready.
“We’ve done what we’ve done over this stretch,” Udoka said, “and that’s not a fluke, obviously, to play at this high of a level.”