On the final day of the regular season last year, the Celtics had some control over determining their first-round playoff opponent. With a loss to the Grizzlies, they would likely avoid facing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Nets in the first round.
The prevailing sentiment was that that would be the wisest choice. But the Celtics had spent most of the second half of the season walloping one opponent after another, and they had no plans to stop. In a show of force, they crushed the Grizzlies before doing the same in a four-game sweep of the Nets.
“We aren’t running from anybody,” coach Ime Udoka said then.
This year’s Celtics do not yet have that same second-half swagger. They are 6-5 since the All-Star break and will admit that their play in recent weeks has at times been clunky.
But with a strong closing kick, they could still pass the Bucks and move into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Even if they don’t, they showed last year by winning a critical Game 6 at Milwaukee in the semifinals before taking Game 7 at Miami in the conference finals that home-court advantage isn’t everything.
“The courts are the same,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said Wednesday. “The basketball is two hoops. So, you’re going to have to win some games on the road regardless.”
The Celtics entered Thursday night with 12 games remaining and a 48-22 record, 2½ games behind the Bucks (50-19) and one game ahead of the third-place 76ers (46-22).
The advantage over Philadelphia is more unstable, since the teams are tied in the loss column. Technically, the 76ers control their destiny, even though Boston holds the tiebreaker between the teams.
If the 76ers win their two catch-up games to even the standings, they’d just need to win their April 4 home game against the Celtics and otherwise play them even. But none of that will be easy.
The Celtics are 3-0 against the 76ers this season. Also, Philadelphia’s path is daunting. It has the NBA’s fourth-toughest remaining schedule, with opponents owning a combined .526 winning percentage. The 76ers must still face the Bucks, Nuggets, Heat, Nets, and Suns, among others. But they will likely avoid Durant, who remains sidelined with a sprained ankle, when they play Phoenix.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have the 14th-hardest remaining slate, with their opponents sporting a combined .502 winning percentage. The games against the Bucks and 76ers are clearly the most significant. But aside from next Tuesday’s road matchup against the upstart Kings, the remaining foes are mostly mediocre.
The difference between the second and third seeds also might not matter much. Although the 76ers have improved, the Celtics generally have had their way with them in recent years. There is a good chance a seventh game would not even be needed.
Furthermore, the No. 3 seed might end up with a slightly more favorable first-round matchup. The Nets are currently in the sixth spot in the East. Their 28-point comeback win over the Celtics earlier this month notwithstanding, they are simply not a fearsome playoff opponent without Durant and Irving.
The Heat, who have battled injuries and essentially have the same roster as last season’s top-seeded squad that took Boston to the brink in the conference finals, are lurking in the seventh spot. But if they remain at No. 7, they would still need to win a play-in game against the No. 8 seed.
The Celtics will need some good fortune if they are to leapfrog the Bucks into the East’s top spot. Milwaukee is finally healthy after dealing with notable injuries throughout the season, and it has fortified its roster by adding veterans Jae Crowder and Goran Dragic.
The Bucks’ remaining opponents have a .490 winning percentage, ranking just 21st. But the Celtics could make things interesting by winning at Milwaukee March 30. In addition to picking up a game in the standings, that would give the Celtics the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Bucks. By the same token, a loss in that game would all but erase the Celtics’ chances of securing the top seed.
“I’m sure we’re all aware of [the standings],” Celtics guard Derrick White said. “As a basketball player, you’re aware of things going on, but we just want to be playing our best. So, we have to figure out a way to look internally and figure out how to play better.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.