The Celtics clinched a playoff berth on Monday, but the team’s opponent in the first-round of the postseason is still not settled with two games remaining in the regular season.
Currently, Boston is set to be the No. 7 seed in the East, thanks to a one-game lead over the Indiana Pacers. If the current standings hold, that spot would earn the Celtics a date with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for their first-round series, which would also double as the worst possible draw in the East.
The Cavs have been the best team in the conference since January 13th, soaring to a 33-9 record after LeBron returned to action following a two-week midseason respite.
A matchup with Cleveland in the first-round would seemingly all but eliminate any chance of a Celtics upset, which has led to an intriguing question being poised by Boston fans in recent days: Is there anyway the Celtics could drop out of the No. 7 seed, just to avoid a matchup with the Cavs?
The answer is yes. However, it would take some tricky maneuvering from Boston, as well as some stellar play from Indiana.
In order to fall to the No. 8 seed and a first-round series with the less intimidating Atlanta Hawks, two things need to happen. First, the Celtics need to lose both of their last two games: Tuesday against Toronto and Wednesday in Milwaukee. Additionally, the Pacers need to win both of their remaining two contests (vs. Washington, at Memphis). Two Boston losses combined with a pair of Indiana wins would catapult the Pacers ahead of the Celtics and into the No. 7 spot.
So just how plausible are these two events? Could the Celtics “tank” the final two games in order to avoid Atlanta? Would Brad Stevens even try to do that anyway? And what are the odds the Pacers can win out? Let’s explore these possibilities.
COULD THE CELTICS LOSE OUT?
Let’s start by looking at things from a Celtics’ perspective. Losing at the Garden Tuesday is a very realistic scenario for Boston. The Raptors are currently fighting with the Bulls for the No. 3 seed in the East, so Toronto will be a hungry team. Stevens will surely want his team playing well into the postseason, (Stevens won’t tank, it’s not in his coaching DNA), but the Raptors are still the more talented team and will be favored now that Kyle Lowry is back in the Toronto lineup.
Boston’s final game comes against Milwaukee on Wednesday and it will be meaningless for the Bucks. They clinched the No. 6 spot in the East on Sunday, so chances are they will be resting their guys in the postseason tuneup. Could the Celtics be resting key contributors in this game, or the Toronto contest, now that they have clinched? Stevens didn’t indicate that would happen, unless it was requested.
“If [trainer] Eddie [Lacerte] tells me they need [the rest],” Stevens said after Sunday’s game, “Or if the players, if somebody comes up and says, ‘I don’t feel good,’ [I could rest them], but we’re going to keep gaining steam here.”
The Bucks won’t be coming off a back-to-back on Wednesday, and are a young deep team that have given the Celtics fits all season (Milwaukee is 2-0 against Boston). Like Tuesday’s game against Toronto, even if Stevens plays everyone regular minutes, the Celtics could realistically lose to Milwaukee. Is it probable for the team to lose both games? No. However, it would not be a shock to see it happen, especially if key Boston contributors (Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, etc.) don’t play their full slate of minutes.
CAN THE PACERS WIN OUT?
All of this talk is relatively meaningless, though, unless the Pacers win their final two games. The good news for Celtics fans that want to see this happen is that Indiana is playing for their postseason lives in these closing two contests. Brooklyn holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Indiana, so the only way the Pacers can ensure they are in the playoffs is by winning out.
Indiana’s next two opponents — Washington, Memphis — have secured their postseason spots already. The Wizards have nothing to play for, since they have locked down the No. 5 seed in the East. The Pacers will be the more motivated team in that matchup and will be favored to win Tuesday.
Indiana’s final road game in Memphis will be a tougher test for the Pacers. However, by the time the two teams play at 9:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, the Grizzlies may have nothing to play for from a seeding perspective in the West. Wins by the Rockets, Spurs, and Clippers in the preceding hours would put Memphis into the No. 6 spot, no matter what happens against the Pacers.
Additionally, there’s a strong possibility the Grizz will be resting starters on Wednesday night. Mike Conley will be sidelined with a foot injury. Marc Gasol is dealing with a sprained left ankle and may sit out as well. Those absences could open the door for a Pacers win.
When you take all of these elements into consideration, the odds still strongly say the Celtics will be stuck with the No. 7 seed. Only one thing needs to go “wrong” (Celtics win, Pacers loss) for Boston to be forced into a series with Cleveland and I don’t expect the C’s to try to dodge that matchup and lose their final two games on purpose.
ESPN’s matchup odds place the Celtics’ chances of dropping to the No. 8 seed at just 4.7 percent. However, when you factor in the specific circumstances, I think it’s safe to say the Celtics’ odds of avoiding Cleveland are quite a bit better than that four percent.
In the meantime, Boston fans that don’t want to see LeBron in the first-round should become big fans of the Pacers, Bucks and Raptors in the next two days.