MEMPHIS — The Celtics finished the regular season Sunday at FedEx Forum how they were supposed to: The right way.
Coach Ime Udoka played his regulars for a little more than a half, they looked mostly sharp and refreshed and despite the possibility of facing the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, winning the Atlantic Division and claiming the No. 2 seed were more important.
That’s because the Celtics have enough faith in themselves that they’ll be prepared and peaking at the appropriate time, which is now.
Robert Williams won’t be around, but the Celtics spent the last two weeks integrating Daniel Theis into their system, getting Jaylen Brown untracked, giving Jayson Tatum a breather and staying healthy after Williams’ knee injury.
The road to the NBA Finals is not easy, regardless of the playoff opponent. The Philadelphia 76ers likely targeted the Atlanta Hawks for a second-round matchup last season, and look what happened. The Celtics decided on home-court advantage for at least the first two rounds, a chance to play a team in need of an extra game to qualify, all while avoiding the possibility of playing Toronto.
While the Celtics were busy trouncing the Grizzlies, 139-110, Philadelphia played without Joel Embiid and James Harden and beat the Detroit Pistons, 118-106, meaning Boston had no chance for the third seed and a first-round matchup with the Chicago Bulls. The Bucks’ 133-115 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier in the day assured that..
The impassioned way the Celtics approached this playoff puzzle shows they fear no one, and they shouldn’t.
“We’re not trying to dodge anybody,” guard Payton Pritchard said. “We go in and whoever we play, we’ll be ready. I think we’re really confident. We believe in ourselves and we only have one goal in mind. It starts with one playoff series at a time. We’re ready.”
Udoka decided correctly not to play with the basketball gods, to avoid trying to duck or face a particular opponent.
The Celtics are the No. 2 seed because they are arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference when healthy and they should be completely healthy by the second round. While the Brooklyn Nets have two of the league’s most imposing offensive players — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — they still rank among the league’s worst defensive teams.
It required a late-entry from Durant for the Nets to finally overtake the playing-for-absolutely-nothing Indiana Pacers, 134-126, on Sunday afternoon.
When you sacrifice wins and momentum to maneuver a certain path into the playoffs, it generally fails. Udoka obviously has more trust in his team than many of those who have built up the Nets into some invincible behemoth.
It’s not that they wouldn’t be a challenge, but the Nets aren’t even in the postseason yet. They have what should be a challenging game with the Cavaliers on Tuesday night.
“With all the variables that we played in, it’s hard to manipulate anything,” Udoka said. “The main thing we said is physically be right. Everybody is talking about Brooklyn, but they have a play-in game to win. Some teams [try to avoid] a certain team and that team might not even be in [the playoffs].”
The playoff scenarios were complex as Sunday began and the Bucks made the decision even more complicated when they decided to rest most of their frontline players in the season finale at Cleveland.
But when the Bucks were blown out, Udoka made the astute move of betting on himself and his team. The Grizzlies made the decision to play his frontline players more difficult by resting their starters, using a group of questionable reserve players — “That guy’s in the league?” — against the Celtics’ first unit.
The game worked out as well as could be expected. No injuries. Standout performances. A 33rd win in the final 43 games. Full momentum going into the postseason.
“It’s about us this time of year,” center Al Horford said. “I think [our message] is pretty clear. We obviously understand what’s ahead. Putting ourselves in the best position that we feel we can. We’re ready.”
What was most impressive about the Celtics’ 33-10 record over their last 43 games was that they lost consecutive games only twice. In January, they suffered back-to-back setbacks vs. the Charlotte Hornets (112-102) and the Portland Trail Blazers (109-105). On March 28, the Celtics, dropped a 115-112 overtime decision in Toronto, a game in which they rested Tatum, Brown and Horford, followed two days later by a 106-98 loss at home against the top-seeded Miami Heat.
Udoka’s team avoided any real losing streak or skids. They even won on nights when they didn’t play well. They bounced back positively from Robert Williams’s recovery from knee surgery with four wins in the final five games. The lone loss in that stretch came last Thursday at Milwaukee, 127-121, when Tatum rested.
The goal was to generate as much momentum as possible near season’s end, develop a system for offensive consistency and defensive dominance so they would avoid such lulls. The Celtics didn’t backslide into the postseason as the No. 2 seed, with issues still to address.
They burst through the front door, ready to take on all comers.
“We’ve done what we’ve done over this stretch that’s not a fluke to play at that high level,” Udoka said. “The consistency that we’ve shown and playing against some really tough competition, battled-tested as far as that. I’m going to remind us if we get away from what we’ve done well. We’re not worried about the other teams. We try to be the best we can whoever we go against and we’re ready for that.”