There are eight games left in the regular season for the Celtics, and the fourth seed is not officially out of reach. To put their plight in the rosiest terms possible, another flurry of strong play to close out the season’s final month could possibly put the Celtics back in the discussion for a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Possible does not equal probable, however, and it is difficult to see such a turn of events taking place. The Celtics dropped another one on Monday, falling to the Timberwolves to suffer their seventh loss in nine games. Paul Pierce was back home dealing with a personal matter. Kevin Garnett reportedly was with the team, but he was out of uniform for the seventh time in two weeks. In short, the Celtics are fading, and at this point there are far more important things for them to worry about than playoff seeding.
The Celtics simply need to make sure they do not totally unravel between now and April 19, when the playoffs can officially begin.
With or without their two aging stars, the Celtics are in rough shape. Despite only losing by 10 points in Minnesota, they never felt all that close. Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio made a mockery of Boston’s patchwork lineup on defense, and only a Wolves defense that was almost equally as inept allowed the Celtics to stay within striking distance.
The low point may have come in the fourth quarter, after the Celtics briefly whittled a double-digit deficit down to as few as five points. Within moments, the Wolves led by double digits once again, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers angrily called timeout in response to a completely inattentive defensive possession by his team. Before they set out to make up 3 1/2 games in the standings to the Nets, who currently hold the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics first have to prove they can stop a cellar-dwelling opponent from scoring at will.
That is not a product of missing Pierce and Garnett. That is a product of fielding a team of players who are not yet familiar with the defensive system.
“We’ve proven we can score 100,” Rivers told reporters. “We scored 100 [on Monday] without 50 points of our offense [in Pierce and Garnett], so we’ll be able to score. With all this, especially the new guys, learning the little things with our defense, we need a lot of work with them. It showed [Monday].”
With that in mind, the non-playing observers can do the Celtics a favor and stop bringing up playoff seeding. Whether the Celtics stay at No. 7, pass Chicago for sixth or fall behind Milwaukee to eighth no longer really matters. Although he would prefer not to meet Miami in the first round, Rivers’ primary concern for the remainder of the regular season is not wins and losses, but finding out which little-used role players can make progress toward grasping the system and which ones should be discarded to the end of the bench.
The health of Pierce and Garnett is paramount, of course, but the Celtics have little control over the condition of Garnett’s ankle or the state of Pierce’s personal life. What they can control — or at least try to figure out — is which players they can trust when things tighten up in the playoffs, no matter the opponent.
When the postseason opens, the most important indicator of the Celtics’ success will not be what seed they have or which matchup they draw, but how they are playing — and who is playing for them.