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Exhaustion, the No. 1 seed, and other thoughts as the Celtics take on the Bucks

A victory over the Bucks Thursday night would be helpful to the Celtics, but it's hardly a must-win game.Stacy Revere/Getty

MILWAUKEE — Seven thoughts about the Celtics as the playoffs inch closer …

▪ On Sunday, guard Malcolm Brogdon raised eyebrows when he declared that the Celtics were in pursuit of the No. 1 seed in the East, adding that it gnawed at him that Milwaukee had passed his team in the standings. It was a departure from the general company line that the team just wanted to be healthy and playing well when the postseason began.

But after getting pummeled by the lowly Wizards Tuesday, no one was echoing Brogdon’s sentiment. Maybe that’s because the loss had put the goal nearly out of reach. And with Milwaukee beating Indiana Wednesday night, the Celtics trail by Bucks by three games with six to play.


So if the Celtics are going to remain in the No. 2 spot, it might as well be locked in sooner rather than later. That would allow them to focus on rest and recovery over the final two weeks, as well as experiment with different combinations that might be useful. That would be better than expending effort and energy just to end up in the same position.

Yes, Tuesday’s stumble aside, the Celtics have looked better recently. But there also have been games in which players simply looked exhausted.

▪ Having said that, a win against the Bucks would still be helpful, even if it didn’t lead to the No. 1 seed. For the most part — especially now, while so many other matchups remain undetermined —the only true benefit of being in the top spot would be having a home game in a potential conference finals Game 7 between the teams.

Al Horford went on the road to upend Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 7 last season. Could they be forced do it again?Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics nearly won in Milwaukee earlier this year despite missing about half of their roster. If they win in Milwaukee Thursday, it would provide further evidence that the challenge would not be that harrowing.


▪ Some perspective for the doomsday crowd: The Celtics are on pace to win 56 games, which would be the most during Brad Stevens’s 10-year tenure with the team as coach or president of basketball operations.

▪ With all this conference finals talk, it’s easy to forget that that stage will be preceded by two challenging rounds. It’s certainly possible that either the Celtics or Bucks will be eliminated before the conference finals, which would render all of the home-court advantage angst meaningless.

So, what does the Celtics’ potential path look like? The picture is clouded by the play-in tournament, but as of Wednesday night, the seventh-place Heat remained the most likely opponent.

The Celtics should beat Miami, but that series would leave a mark. This Heat group is very similar to the one that took the Celtics to seven games in the conference finals last season. They have a collection of tough, physical, bruising competitors, and an elite coach in Erik Spoelstra.

There’s no doubt that the Celtics would prefer to face the reconstructed sixth-place Nets, who are clinging to the wins Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving staked them to before being traded. The Hawks wouldn’t really be a matchup to fear, either.

▪ Helping Jayson Tatum rediscover his 3-point shot should be a priority for the Celtics over these last two weeks, whatever form that takes. Maybe that means getting him more rest. Maybe it means creating specific actions to get him the 3-pointers he’s comfortable taking. Maybe there are mental exercises.


Regardless, it’s important. Tatum is shooting a career-low 34.4 percent from beyond the arc this season, but the recent downturn has been more pronounced. He has connected on just 29.4 percent since the All-Star break, and 23.3 percent over his last seven games.

To Tatum’s credit, he shifted some of his focus toward getting to the rim, and he has had success there. But the Celtics will need both aspects of his offensive game to be clicking to win a title.

▪ Payton Pritchard returned Tuesday after missing a few weeks with a heel injury. He hasn’t been part of the regular rotation for months, and coach Joe Mazzulla brushed off the notion that Pritchard might need some reps over the rest of the regular season in case he’s needed during the playoffs.

But it couldn’t hurt. When Pritchard checked in early in the fourth quarter Tuesday, he provided a reminder of how he can give this team a jolt of energy.

Pritchard provided a boost off the bench in his return Tuesday.Nick Wass/Associated Press

▪ Yes, the Celtics still have an empty roster spot. They’ll fill it before the regular season ends, but don’t expect the player to have any impact. The most likely scenario would involve signing a young player to a multiyear deal that is not guaranteed next season, essentially giving the team an extended look at some potential future bench depth.


There’s been some discussion about the need for another veteran locker room presence. But this team’s cohesion is actually quite strong. It’s mostly been a drama-free year among the players, and Blake Griffin has comfortably assumed the role of veteran sage.

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.