Paul Pierce, Celtics Within Striking Distance of Atlantic Division Crown, But Matchups Will Dictate Benefit

Paul Pierce, Kendrick PerkinsPaul Pierce claims not to care about winning the Atlantic Division, and merely as a title, a division championship does not mean a whole lot. As Doc Rivers has joked, division winners do not even get commemorative T-shirts. And what good is an accomplishment if you don’t get a free shirt out of it?

Pierce has spent his entire 15-year NBA career with the Celtics, so it makes sense that he has adopted the organization’s philosophy of only acknowledging the kind of championship that brings a trophy shaped like a gilded wastebasket. He scoffed aside the topic of the division race before practice on Friday, which was the prudent course. Not long ago, the Celtics were merely fighting to stay in the playoff picture, let alone worrying about winning the division, so Pierce is best served maintaining his one-game-at-a-time mindset.

Yet, here they are. The Celtics entered Friday trailing the Knicks by only 3 1/2 games for the division crown and the top-four playoff seed that goes with it. As the Knicks begin to fall, literally, and the Nets continue their apparent unwillingness to take control of a race that should be theirs, the Celtics could be primed for their customary late-season push.

The question is whether they should bother shooting for the division at all. The division title comes with several inherent benefits, of course, but just how beneficial that position will be depends as much on matchups as on Boston’s seed alone.

Let’s take a few of the likely scenarios and how they could play out for the Celtics.

Scenario 1

First round: Celtics (6) vs. Knicks (3)
East semifinals: Celtics vs. Pacers (2)
East finals: Celtics/Pacers vs. Heat (1)

If the standings stayed static for the rest of the season, this would be the Celtics’ probable road through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Kevin Garnett and the Celtics would savor a matchup with Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks, assuming Anthony is healthy, and a second-round meeting with the Pacers would be a toss-up that could come down to who has home-court advantage. Then come the conference finals, where anything is possible (especially a victory for the Heat, but for the sake of this story, that is neither here nor there).

Scenario 2

First round: Chicago/Atlanta (6) vs. Celtics (3)
East semis: Celtics vs. Pacers (2)
East finals: Celtics/Pacers vs. Heat (1)

Call this “The Best-Case Scenario.” The Celtics go for broke, surge past the Knicks and Nets (as well as the Bulls, with whom they are currently tied), and get into the top three. That puts them outside the Heat’s part of the bracket until the conference finals, which ideally is where they want to be. The fact that they get home-court advantage for the first round is a bonus. There is no way they dodge both Indiana and Miami unless one of those two gets upset in the early rounds.

Scenario 3

First round: Celtics (5) vs. Nets (4)
East semis: Celtics vs. Heat (1)
East finals: Celtics/Heat vs. Pacers (2)

This is the worst best-case scenario for the Celtics, if that makes any sense. Short of falling all the way to eighth, which would take a massive collapse, this would put the Celtics in their least-advantageous position to reach the conference finals. The Nets are probably an even bigger paper tiger than the Knicks, but the Fighting Prokhorovs have won two of the three meetings with the Celtics this season and they might be the one team that can grind out wins in an even slower style than the Celtics. After that, the winner gets the Heat in the second round, a far less preferable time to get the defending champs. This is what awaits the Celtics if they make a serious run for one of the top three seeds and fall just a bit short.

Why is delaying the matchup with the Heat so desirable? As the playoffs go on, the improbable becomes more likely. Things happen in the first two rounds that can affect performance later. Those things unfortunately include ruptured tendons, torn ligaments and bulging discs. Maybe LeBron James tweaks his knee or Chris Bosh feels a twinge in his lower back, and it hurts their performance as the playoffs progress. The chances of such freak occurrences become much more likely as the Heat play more games, so saving the Heat for last (or second-to-last, counting the NBA Finals) increases the likelihood they will be at less than full strength in later rounds. If the Heat have played 10 or 12 games, as opposed to four or five, there is a greater chance one of their key players could be hobbled and limited in a seven-game series.

No one is rooting for James to get hurt — all right, admit it, some of you are — but last year’s experiences with Derrick Rose and others showed that crazy things happen as the playoffs unfold. Nor is this intended to imply the Celtics cannot beat Miami at full strength. They are already 1-0 without Rajon Rondo against the Heat, after all. Pierce and Kevin Garnett certainly have not played like they are afraid of any opponent. Yet nobody can argue that a worn-down James is tougher to beat than a fresh one.

The Celtics insist they have not looked at any of this. They are probably telling the truth. With the playoffs still more than a month away, it is somewhat early for them to strategically plot their path seeding-wise. But there is an extra element to watch as they try to make their way up the East standings. The best seed possible may not be the best seed for them, if the matchups are not right.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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