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The Celtics had a visible path to the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference as recently as May 5 with two opportunities to distance themselves from the Heat and a much easier schedule than the Knicks.
Instead, the Celtics lost four straight including both contests against the Heat. That was a microcosm of their season — the Celtics showed flashes of potential all year with encouraging seasons from several individual players, and the chemistry in the locker room is solid by all accounts.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of negativity, and we’ve stayed together,” Brad Stevens said on Sunday. “I think that’s the most important thing you can do.”
That togetherness, however, never translated consistently on the court, and perhaps appropriately, the Celtics finished the regular season 36-36. Now they need to win one of two games just to earn a showdown with the 76ers or Nets in the first round.
The NBA implemented new play-in rules this season. Since the Celtics finished with the seventh-best record in the East, they need to beat either the Wizards or the winner of the Hornets vs. Pacers to reach the first round.
If they beat the Wizards, they face the No. 2 seed Nets.
If they lose to the Wizards but win the next game, they take on the No. 1 seed Sixers.
If they lose both games, they will be in the draft lottery.
From there, the playoffs continue normally.
This year’s play-in format is a variation on last year’s Disney World bubble, in which the No. 9 seed needed to be within four games of the No. 8 seed to force a play-in scenario. The Wizards couldn’t close the gap in the Eastern Conference, but the No. 9 seed Trail Blazers beat the No. 8 Grizzlies twice in the Western Conference to earn a first-round series.
The success of that format prompted NBA commissioner Adam Silver to say the play-in game was something the league “would embrace going forward.”
“I’ve been talking about it for a while,” Silver said at the time. “We saw this as an opportunity to institute a form of it. I’m not sure if this would be the exact format going forward. But this is something we’d like to see stay.”
The Celtics play the Wizards at 9 p.m. EST on Tuesday. The game will be broadcast nationally on TNT.
If the Celtics lose, their next game would be on Thursday at 8 p.m. on TNT. The playoffs tip off on Saturday.
Jaylen Brown is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn scapholunate ligament in his left wrist.
Marcus Smart was on the bench for the Celtics’ last two games with a calf contusion, but Brad Stevens said he avoided any further damage — a relief for the Celtics after Smart missed nearly two months from a calf strain he suffered in January.
Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier and Tristan Thompson all missed the regular-season finale against the Knicks with mild injury issues.
Robert Williams sat the last four games of the regular season dealing with a case of turf toe.
“I think we’ve got some potential availability amongst that group [on Tuesday], but also some potential misses amongst that group,” Brad Stevens said on Sunday.
Bradley Beal was ruled questionable with a hamstring injury against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday before he was ultimately upgraded to available. He led the Wizards in scoring with 25 points but shot just 8-for-27 from the field.
The Celtics are 2-1 against Washington this season.
The Wizards are a difficult matchup in part because they are red hot — 17-6 in their last 22 games entering the postseason. Perhaps a bigger issue than Washington’s recent success, however, is Bradley Beal, who averaged 40.7 points against the Celtics this season on 55.3/45.8/96.4 shooting. The Celtics have largely bottled up Russell Westbrook (16.3 points on 35.1 percent shooting), but in a single-game series, the health of Beal’s hamstring looms large.
The Wizards have a net rating of 6.9 in their last 20 games. Per the NBA’s stats, they have the fifth-best net rating in the NBA over their last 15.
“They’re a heck of a basketball team,” Stevens said on Sunday. “It starts with Westbrook and Beal. They’ve got a great size, they’ve got a lot of different ways they can play. They can go small with Ish Smith and Neto and with those guards and be super fast and hard to keep in front. They can go way bigger with shooting, with posting. They’re a handful.”
The Celtics are 0-3 against the Nets this season.
Brooklyn has plenty of star power, and those stars have given the Celtics fits. Kyrie Irving poured in 40 and 37 points in March and December respectively, and Kevin Durant dropped 29 in December. The Celtics are yet to play against Brooklyn’s healthy Big Three (although they are far from alone — Durant, Irving and Harden played just eight games and 202 minutes together all season).
But the Nets also employ experienced role players, which will be another postseason advantage over the young Celtics. In late April, the Celtics faced the Nets with James Harden and Kevin Durant both sidelined due to injury. Irving scored just 15 points on 4-for-19 shooting, but the Nets won in large part because five players — Irving, Jeff Green, Joe Harris, Bruce Brown and Blake Griffin — scored double figures.
Jayson Tatum topped 30 twice (31 and 37) against Brooklyn.
The Celtics are 0-3 against the Sixers this season.
After the Celtics knocked Philly off repeatedly for years, Joel Embiid seems to have put everything together. The MVP candidate averaged 38.3 points on 60.4 percent shooting, pulled down nine rebounds and went to the line a staggering 18.7 times per game in his three meetings with the Celtics. Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams had little answer for Embiid’s size, and he beat double teams with his passing when the Celtics brought a second defender.
Other Sixers players have had nice moments against the Celtics. Tobias Harris went 10-for-12 and scored 23 points in January, while Danny Green shot 5-for-6 from deep en route to 17 points in April. But Embiid has been the Celtics’ biggest issue both figuratively and literally all season.
Can LeBron James and Anthony Davis rally after a disappointing regular season and lead the No. 7 Lakers out of the play-in game to a second consecutive title?
Is Brooklyn’s Big Three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant so talented that their lack of playing time this season won’t matter? If so, what does that say about the regular season?
Nikola Jokic appears to be the near-consensus MVP. How far can he carry the Nuggets without Jamal Murray?
The Heat are surging at the right time. Can the tough-minded defending Eastern Conference champions make another surprise run?
Joel Embiid had his best regular season to date. Can he have his best postseason to date as well?
Are Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks destined for another high seed and another early playoff exit?
The NBA playoffs are truly unpredictable for the first time in years. Will another potential dynasty emerge?
Hornets @ Pacers: 6:30 on TNT
Wizards @ Celtics 8:00 p.m. on TNT
Spurs @ Grizzlies: 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
Warriors vs. Blazers/Lakers: 10:00 p.m. on ESPN
Winner of Hornets vs. Pacers vs. Loser of Wizards vs. Celtics: 8:00 p.m. on TNT
Winner of Spurs vs. Grizzlies vs. Loser of Warriors vs. Blazers/Lakers: TBD on ESPN
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