The Celtics are once again reeling, riding their second four-game losing streak in just over a month. This latest rut has certainly not been encouraging, but the truth is it hasn’t really affected their playoff position.
The Celtics have been trending toward a 4-vs.-5-seed opening-round series for weeks. Now that possibility has just been crystallized. But some meaningful games remain, and some positioning still needs to be sorted out.
■ The first-round picture
Indiana’s win over the Nuggets Sunday was just its third over a winning team since Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending knee injury Jan. 23. But the fact that the Celtics remain stuck behind the Pacers anyway offers a good indicator of how Boston’s season has gone.
These teams remain on a first-round collision course, but there is jostling to be done to determine home-court advantage. The Celtics trail Indiana by two games, and since the teams meet twice more, there will be a good opportunity for Boston to make up ground quickly.
Also, the Pacers have a more difficult closing schedule. Their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .514, while Boston’s have a combined mark of .482. If the Celtics win both games against Indiana, they would win the season series, 3-1, and thus secure the tiebreaker.
The task will become significantly more challenging if they split the two games, however, because the Celtics would need to make up a two-game deficit over six contests.
The good news is that the next tiebreaker is conference record, and that would also favor Boston. Indiana currently has a 30-15 mark in the East, while Boston is 29-15. The Pacers’ game Tuesday against the Thunder is the last for either team outside the conference, so if the Celtics make up the two-game difference in the overall standings, that would mean that they pass Indiana for better record within the conference as well.
The Celtics’ obvious preference would have been to lock up the No. 4 seed quickly so they could let their various — and accumulating — bumps and bruises heal. But it is more likely that the only way they will have their seeding set with time to spare is if they remain stuck in the No. 5 spot.
Kyrie Irving and Brad Stevens have both said that Irving will probably sit for a few games before the end of the regular season. Al Horford has missed the last two games with knee soreness and will almost certainly sit for at least one more. Jayson Tatum missed Sunday’s game with a bruised lower back.
The great challenge for the Celtics is that they are still on a quest to find a consistent rhythm on the court, so Stevens would like to deploy all of his weapons together to try to establish that.
“One of my issues with the lineups,” Stevens said, “is some of the lineups that I’m most interested in haven’t been available.”
There is a slim chance that the Pacers could catch the 76ers for third place, but it is extremely unlikely. Although Philadelphia lost Monday in Orlando, leaving the Sixers with a two-game lead over the Pacers, it holds the tiebreaker. Furthermore, the 76ers’ closing schedule is considerably lighter, with games against the Timberwolves, Hawks, and Mavericks, and two against the Bulls.
■ The bigger picture
The Raptors have the easiest remaining schedule in the league, so after Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic were lost to injuries and Toronto pulled within two games of the Bucks with 10 remaining, it looked as though the Raptors might make a push toward the No. 1 seed in the East.
But those hopes were quickly dashed by Toronto’s consecutive home losses to the Thunder and Hornets, the latter on a half-court buzzer-beating heave by Charlotte’s Jeremy Lamb Sunday night. Toronto is essentially locked into the No. 2 spot now, four games behind No. 1 Milwaukee.
The clarity at the top could allow both teams to close the regular season however they wish, mixing in rest or experimenting with playoff combinations.
Toronto has valued health over seed-chasing all year, particularly with star forward Kawhi Leonard, who has now missed 20 games, mostly because of “load management.”
The Celtics are really in no position to look past anyone once the playoffs begin, but there is no doubt that the bracket sets up about as favorably as it could for a team that is struggling this mightily.
In addition to facing Indiana without its lone All-Star (Oladipo), Boston could get the Bucks without Brogdon (15.6 points, 4.5 rebounds), whose heel injury could keep him out until the conference finals.
And even at full strength, Milwaukee has been a more favorable matchup for the Celtics than the Raptors.
Mirotic should be back in time for the conference semifinals, but he could be rusty, and he has played in just 14 games since the Bucks acquired him, so he is missing potentially valuable time to find a groove with his new teammates.