The Celtics essentially crawled to the finish line of their regular season, losing Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart to injuries in what was their last somewhat meaningful game before the playoffs.
What the Celtics learned Sunday against Orlando was that they really didn’t need to win because the Indiana Pacers had lost to the Brooklyn Nets shortly after the tipoff against the Orlando Magic, ensuring Boston would clinch homecourt advantage for their first-round playoff series.
And they learned their opponent will be the Pacers, whom the Celtics drubbed by 20 points on Friday.
The good news is, despite a 116-108 loss to the Magic, who clinched their first playoff berth in the post-Dwight Howard era, the Celtics will have six days to prepare for Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against Indiana.
They don’t have to wait until the final night of the season, hours after the final games end, to learn their playoff opponent.
The Celtics will use this week to rest — so look forward to seeing a lot of R.J. Hunter and P.J. Dozier on Tuesday against the Washington Wizards — practice and then prepare for a favorable playoff matchup.
Would the Celtics rather play the Nets or the Magic or even the Pistons in the first round over a hobbled Pacers club that is 21-21 since Victor Oladipo sustained a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 6?
What’s more, just four of the Pacers’ 21 wins were against teams with winning records.
Indiana hung in there in the Eastern Conference by its strong early start and then devoured a bunch of cupcakes in the second half of the season.
The Celtics, meanwhile, won five of their past seven games, including a pair of wins over the Pacers and Heat. They seemed to approach the form they were expected to when the season began and even played an inspired fourth quarter to rally from a 14-point deficit to tie the Magic at 106 before Orlando responded with a couple of key baskets in the waning minutes to pull away.
The Celtics basically shut down Jayson Tatum after he complained of a shin contusion early in the game, and he never returned. Marcus Smart sustained what Celtics coach Brad Stevens called a “bruised” oblique muscle in the third quarter in a collision with Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic. The hope is that Smart will rest the next few days and return Sunday against the Pacers.
After months of chirping from some players — most notably, Kyrie Irving — about their desire to skip straight past the regular season to the start of the playoffs, well, the playoffs are now here. While Tuesday’s regular-season finale against the Wizards is a mere formality, the Celtics feel better about their postseason chances than a few weeks ago.
“This whole week has been good for us,” center Al Horford said. “We’ve been challenged and I feel like our team has answered and played at a high level like we needed to. [Sunday] was just another night that I feel like we played really well.”
It’s unrealistic for the Celtics to believe they could just “flip the switch” and start playing well in the postseason. Fortunately, for them, they were able to pick up their play, win those key games against Miami and Indiana and now head into the postseason brimming with confidence.
The only downside Sunday were the injuries to Tatum and Smart. But it appears those could be minor and, unlike last season, the Celtics will be at full strength and prepared for a long playoff run.
The Celtics have lost 33 games, and 15 of those losses have come against the Magic, Rockets, Blazers, Jazz, Clippers, Nuggets and Spurs, but the good news is they are not likely to face any of those Western Conference opponents until the NBA Finals or, in the case of the Magic, in the Eastern Conference finals.
But that’s assuming the Celtics make it that far.
There was some degree of disappointment in the fact the Celtics didn’t come close to their projected total of 56 wins, and that they remain 12 games behind first-place Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings.
But that really doesn’t matter now. The Celtics are who they are, and finished where they finished: fourth. They were going to have to play the Bucks sometime, so why not in the second round if they were to beat the Pacers.
“I think it is good we kind of got a chance to see what they’re about,” Gordon Hayward said about the Pacers. “You know, kind of get ourselves ready a little bit with what they like to do. I know they’re going to be different, though, than the last two times we’ve played them. They’re definitely going to play better than last time.
“It will be a tough series so we have to be ready.”
And now the Celtics have a couple of extra days to rest and prepare, the No. 4 seed and homecourt advantage locked up, and the confidence they can beat the Pacers.