Twenty-two games remain on their regular season schedule. The next three are all on the road against teams trying to either stave off or jump over Boston in the playoff standings: Atlanta on Monday (2 1/2 games up on Boston); Milwaukee on Thursday (three games behind Boston); and Philadelphia on Friday (1 1/2 games up on Boston).
By the end of that three-game stretch, the C's, seventh in the conference at 23-21 heading into Monday night's game, could be as low as eighth or as high as fourth in the standings.
That fluidity is a testament to just how inconsistent this team has been all year — from an impressive five-game winning streak at the beginning of March to Friday night's "good old-fashioned butt-whipping" at the hands of the 16-29 Sacramento Kings (as captain Paul Pierce put it).
So what's got to give in this three-game stand?
This is the first of three games against the Hawks over the next month and a half. Atlanta has been shorthanded without Marvin Williams and Willie Green, among others, but the Hawks have won two in a row despite it. The man to watch will be Josh Smith, who can help exploit one of Boston's bigger weaknesses: rebounding.
Boston draws the Bucks twice down the home stretch after beating them in February 102-96 at TD Garden. Rajon Rondo was the difference in that one, dropping a triple-double on Brandon Jennings, who by contrast went 2-for-11 from the field. Still, Milwaukee has won five straight and can score in bunches – reference the Bucks' 120-point performance Friday against Golden State.
The 76ers have been reeling of late, losing three in a row and six of their last 10. But they were coming off a similar losing streak when they handled Boston two weeks ago in Philly, 103-71. They rank first in the league in points allowed (87.8), which proves tough for a Celtics team that's 26th in points scored. Add in the fact that Philadelphia crashes the glass (sixth in the league in rebounds), and you're looking at a matchup problem for Boston, especially given that they'll be coming to Philly after a game the night before in Milwaukee.
A sweep of the next three games, in other words, is highly unlikely. But taking two of them would put the C's in good position for a late-season run at the fourth seed.
Those games, as it happens, also fall in the middle of team president Danny Ainge's vital search for a backup big man. The waiver deadline for playoff eligibility is Friday, and it's no secret the Celts are scrambling to find anyone — and I mean anyone.
"It's always a risk [to pick up someone who's been bought out by his former team], but in our case, it wouldn't be much of a risk if the guy was over [6-foot-6]. He would still be tall," coach Doc Rivers said about the search for a big.
Ronny Turiaf and Chris Johnson are names being bandied about. Neither is very appealing, but both are likely better than hoping Jermaine O'Neal's wrist and knees can hold up long enough to make a playoff push.
In the meantime, the Celtics will need to buckle down — and hope playoff seeding can keep their dimming chances of a second- or third-round playoff appearance alive.
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