There are two sides of every argument here at CelticsHub, as we try our best to be “fair and balanced” while looking at the C’s prospects. Earlier this week, I covered the possibility that the Celtics could jump ahead a miraculous five games in the standings over the final 20 games and leapfrog the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks for the Atlantic Division title. Despite last night’s ugly loss, this scenario is still in play, although Boston can’t afford any more stinkers in the next few weeks against bad teams.
However, there is another scenario we need to talk about. The one where this team cools off quite a bit the rest over the rest of the regular season, despite a manageable schedule, and play closer to .500 ball in the final 19 games. Lurking below the Celtics in the 8th spot are the Milwaukee Bucks. These guys, aided by the addition of J.J. Redick, have been playing some very solid basketball lately, going 6-3 since the trade deadline against a tough schedule.
At the moment, they trail the Celtics by just 1 1/2 games. Having won three of the four head-to-head matchups with Boston this year, they also hold the playoff tiebreaker over the C’s. And like every other team in the East, Milwaukee will be fighting like hell the rest of the way to avoid the Miami Heat in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
If the Celtics slide down the stretch here, there’s a very real possibility the Bucks could slide past them and drop Boston into the dreaded eighth spot. With that in the back of our mind, let’s take a look at how the schedule looks for the Bucks down the stretch run. Just how much of a threat are the Bucks to pass the Celtics?
Games Remaining: 20 (10 home, 10 road)
Games against playoff teams: 11 (2 MIA, 2 OKC, 2 ATL)
Thankfully, Milwaukee’s remaining schedule is far short of a cakewalk. Not too many back-to-backs in there, but a lot of elite opponents on the docket, including the Heat, Thunder, Pacers, Lakers (I’m reaching I know), Denver, etc. That’s some tough sledding right there.
10-10 would probably be a fair guess right now for the remaining schedule if you are going to go by chalk, but the Bucks have shown the ability to win in some tough arenas lately (@ Dallas, @ Houston) so that should not be the ceiling on this team. 12-8 or 13-7 isn’t be out of the question, (as are a 8-12 or 7-13 record).
As long as the Celtics finish one full game above the Bucks in the standings, they will be all set to avoid the eighth seed, but the coaching staff will have to watch Milwaukee closely to see just how much they can afford to rest guys like Pierce and Garnett down the stretch. The closer the Bucks stay in the standings, the more leery Doc Rivers may be of doing so.
It’s important to remember though that there are other teams that could fall into the eighth seed as well, with the C’s tied with the Hawks and just a half-game behind the Bulls at the moment. Let’s check out where those teams stand the rest of the way with their matchups.
Games remaining: 19 (11 home, 8 road)
Games vs playoff teams or teams in playoff contention: 12
Similar to Milwaukee’s slate, except with more home games. Not as many elite opponents as the Bucks, but road trips to Milwaukee, Boston, Indiana, New York, San Antonio, and Brooklyn all won’t be easy. The Celtics gain the end-of-season tiebreaker with a win over the Hawks in their final head-to-head matchup, so that will be yet another crucial game for Boston to help ensure they stay out of the basement of the Eastern Conference seeding.
Going 11-8 the rest of the way, won’t be easy for the Hawks, but is definitely do-able. As long as the C’s match that mark, they should be able to stay in front of Atlanta.
Games remaining: 19 (9 home, 10 road)
Games vs. playoff teams or teams in playoff contention: 9
Games Derrick Rose plays: ???
Don’t look for a freefall into the eighth spot from Thibs’ crew. Nearly all of Chicago’s tough games come at home (which actually may be a bad thing given their 18-14 home record this year). Lots of cupcakes though beyond two more games against the Heat and if there’s anyone who will run his team into the ground before the playoffs even start to gain seeding, it’s Thibs. If Boston plays .700 ball they could pass them in the standings, but I expect them to finish out something around 12-7, even if Rose doesn’t play. They aren’t a threat to drop that much lower, if they remain healthy.
Put it all together and Celtics fans should fear the deer a little bit less now, knowing how tough Milwaukee’s and Atlanta’s schedule is down the stretch. Even with that knowledge, the Celtics still need to take care of business and play at least .600 ball the rest of the way if they want to feel secure about avoiding the eighth seed.
One reason to love Paul Pierce is that unlike Doc Rivers, he admits he looks at the standings. He knows the scenarios and uses it as fuel to motivate him. With that in mind, the debate between rest and seeding will be sure to intensify over the remaining few weeks.
So buckle your seatbelts folks….and start rooting against the Hawks and Bucks every night. You can bet Pierce will be doing the same thing.