In an abbreviated NBA season, it’s never too early to start focusing on playoff seedings. For the Celtics, that has meant two weeks of repeating that they must get out of the Eastern Conference’s dreaded seventh or eighth spots, where they would presumably be sacrificial lambs to either the Chicago Bulls or the Miami Heat.
It’s difficult to argue with that logic. Not even the most optimistic Celtics fan can honestly see the C’s outlasting the Heat, their current would-be first-round opponent, in a seven-game series. Anything less than the sixth seed in the East is a death knell.
That’s a valid worry, but the reality is that the sixth seed and its current inhabitant, the Atlanta Hawks, should really have nothing to do with the Celtics’ concerns. Boston’s aim should be on the Philadelphia 76ers and the No. 4 seed, not only for the obvious fact that it’s two spots higher than six, but because it is a much more practical goal. The Celtics (19-17) visit Philadelphia (22-16) on Wednesday for what could be a crucial matchup when it comes to sorting out the playoff picture.
As in the other major sports, the NBA does not seed teams for the first round of the playoffs 1-8 and let them have at it. The three division winners from each conference are assured one of the top four seeds and the first-round homecourt advantage that goes with them. The format lends more importance to the regular season and a greater reward for winning the division, which would otherwise just be a nice thing to brag about.
That is why the Sixers hold the fourth spot despite trailing the Orlando Magic by two games in the loss column. It is also why the Celtics, 2 1/2 games behind the Hawks for the sixth seed, are closer to the Sixers in the battle for the fourth seed.
A Sixers loss Monday night and a Celtics win Tuesday would leave the teams tied in the loss column. By way of their 6-2 division record, the Celtics would hold the fourth seed for a little less than 24 hours over the Sixers, who have only played three division games and are 1-2 in those games.
But none of that really matters once the teams tip off Wednesday. The first tiebreaker for a deadlock atop the division is head-to-head record, which puts huge importance on Wednesday’s game as well as the teams’ next meeting in a little over two weeks. The Celtics play the Sixers three times this season, so by winning the first two in Philadelphia, the C’s could essentially control their own destiny for that valuable homecourt advantage.
The upcoming stretch of eight consecutive road games could be brutal on the Celtics, who are just 5-9 away from TD Garden this season. They could fall out of the playoff field entirely, if their inconsistency up to this point is any indication.
The trade-related yammering is not likely to stop unless Rajon Rondo decides to go into full Oscar Robertson mode like he did Sunday, but when the trade deadline arrives March 15, the Celtics could have a homecourt playoff series in hand.
That would complicate the viewpoint that it’s time to blow up the roster and start anew, wouldn’t it?