It seems like all season long the number one priority for the Celtics has been to get everybody healthy at the same time, and things are no different heading into the homestretch of the season. However, healthy or not, the Celtics are going to have to keep pushing. As things stand, they sit 2.5 games back of the Toronto Raptors for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and, for a variety of reasons, the importance of closing that gap cannot be understated.
Through 56 games this season, the Celtics have had their five preferred starters (Walker, Hayward, Brown, Tatum and Theis) healthy at the same time just 18 times. In the limited time that this 5-man lineup has been able to share the court, they’ve been fantastic, posting the 9th best net rating (+12.8) and 3rd best offensive rating (121.1) of all 5-man lineups league-wide with at least 150 minutes played. Per CleaningTheGlass.com, the lineup ranks in the 82nd percentile in point differential per 100 possessions (+14.3) among all lineups that have played at least 100 possessions together league wide. As stated before, however, that time has been extremely limited. So far this season, the Celtics’ preferred starters have shared the court for just 188 total minutes. For perspective, the preferred starting lineups of the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Miami Heat have played together for totals of 361 minutes, 280 minutes, and 488 minutes respectively. In fact, even the 76ers original starting lineup that included Al Horford has played 244 minutes together despite enduring several injuries themselves and toying with their lineup in recent weeks.
Yet despite all of the injuries, the Celtics keep winning, and if they’re going to close the gap on the Raptors for the second seed, that theme will need to continue regardless of whether or not the injury bug continues to plague them. If you’re like me and many other Celtics fans, you’ve probably convinced yourself that this team are legitimate contenders to come out of the East and make a championship run. However, their odds at doing so could be influenced greatly by what seed they enter the playoffs as. Here’s why:
First Round Match-Up:
As the third seed in the East, the Celtics would likely face the Indiana Pacers barring some sort of total collapse by the 76ers during what could be an extended absence for Ben Simmons. As the second seed, the Celtics would instead face either the Brooklyn Nets or the Orlando Magic who currently sit four games and seven games under .500 respectively. On the other hand, the Pacers sit nine games above .500 at 33-24 with reason to believe that they can improve before the playoffs with their star wing Victor Oladipo slowly working his way back into the fold. As for the Nets and Magic, there isn’t much reason to believe that there’s another level that they can reach. Since the turn of the New Year, the Nets have gone 10-14 and the Magic have gone 11-13. When things started to look like they might be turning around for the Nets during a solid start to the month of February, their hopes were dashed by the news that Kyrie Irving would be sidelined for the rest of the season. While I wouldn’t consider any of the aforementioned teams intimidating, I prefer for the Celtics to have the easiest opponent possible which would undoubtedly be whoever ends up in the 7th seed between the Nets and Magic. Plus, even though he won’t be playing, who wouldn’t want to see the Celtics send Kyrie’s team home, ideally in a clean sweep?
Avoiding the Bucks for as Long as Possible:
This task could also be achieved by getting the third seed, but the Celtics won’t even have to worry about the Bucks if they can’t get past the second round, which leads me to my next reason as to why the second seed is a necessity.
Home Court Advantage in the Second Round:
In the Brad Stevens era, the Celtics have gone 2-11 in games in Toronto with their only two wins coming on Christmas Day this season when the Raptors were missing several starters, and in overtime back in the 2014-2015 season. If they have trouble winning in Toronto during regular season games, imagine how tough it would be with the energy and intensity of a playoff game. Not to mention, the Celtics have been significantly better at home this season than on the road against all opponents:
Celtics At Home:
-3rd Net Rating (+9.9)
-1st ORTG (116.5)
-7th eFG% (54.8%)
-5th TS% (58.8%)
Celtics On Road:
-5th Net Rating (+3.5)
-12th ORTG (108.6)
-20th eFG% (51.5%)
-21st TS% (55.2%)When you look at how Boston has performed at home vs on the road versus top-13 teams, there’s even more of a stark contrast in their play. Versus top 13 teams on the road, the Celtics have a 4-7 record and a -1.71 net rating whereas at home versus these top teams, their record is 8-2 with a +10.63 net rating. For perspective, their net rating on the road versus top-13 teams is still the 4th highest of any team in the league, however their insane net rating at home in such games is easily the best in the league. Additionally, only the 76ers have a better win percentage than the Celtics’ 80% in such games at home.
Potential For Home Court Advantage in the Finals:
In the dream scenario in which the Celtics were to get through Toronto, Milwaukee and the rest of the Eastern Conference to the NBA Finals, there’s a semi-realistic world in which they could host Game 1 of the Finals in TD Garden. While home court advantage goes to the team with the higher seed throughout the first three rounds of the NBA playoffs, in the Finals it goes to the team with the better regular season record regardless of seed. As things stand, the Celtics have the 4th best record in the entire NBA, and have a better record than every team in the Western Conference other than the Lakers. That means that if the season were to end today, the Celtics would have home court advantage in the NBA Finals against any opponent other than the Lakers, and even they aren’t totally out of reach as they sit just 4.5 games ahead of the Celtics. Teams with homecourt advantage are 6-1 in the last seven NBA Finals and 10-3 dating back to 2007. It’s silly to think too much about NBA Finals implications when teams like the Raptors and Bucks stand in the way, but it’s at least worth noting that a strong finish to the season could greatly benefit them on the ultimate stage should they be able to get there.
The Path Ahead:
As of today, the Celtics sit 2.5 games back of the Raptors and lead the season series between the two 2-1. The two teams will once more on March 20th, and a win would clinch the season series tiebreaker for Boston. That tiebreaker will only matter, however, if Boston can close the 2.5 game gap between them, a task that will be nearly impossible if Toronto keeps winning at the rate they have been over the last few weeks. While the Celtics have been playing relatively well, winning 14 of their last 20 and 12 of their last 15, they haven’t been able to gain any ground on the Raptors who have won 18 of their last 20 games.
In their final 25 games, Toronto will face 14 current playoff teams, but the road ahead isn’t any easier for Boston who will face 16 current playoff teams over their final 26 games. The next five games for each team are as follows:
Boston: @ Portland, @ Utah, vs. Houston, vs. Brooklyn, @ Cleveland
Toronto: vs. Milwaukee, vs. Charlotte, @ Denver, @ Phoenix, @ Golden State
The race for the second seed is on, and there’s very little margin for error for Boston from here on out.
Photo: Kathryn Riley/Getty Images