Most teams have arrived in Orlando by now for the NBA’s return from the pandemic pause, but we still have a little ways to go until the 22 franchises invited to Walt Disney World Resort actually start playing.
Like many teams, the Boston Celtics, who return to play July 31 against the Milwaukee Bucks for the first of their eight “seeding games,” have been greatly impacted by the abrupt halt back in March.
And for better or for worse, the NBA’s return-to-play format affects them as well.
Did the Celtics finally rid themselves of those pesky injuries, or will all this time off be detrimental?
For one, the pause gave Boston’s lineup some time to get healthy. Plagued by injuries all season long, opportunities for the squad to play at its full strength came few and far between. Still, the “Hospital Celtics” managed to grab hold of the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed.
The question around Boston all season was, “Imagine if this team could get healthy for the playoffs, at least?”
Well, the Celtics have had plenty of time to rest up and get well. That said, all that rust could result in someone getting hurt when rigorous competition resumes, running them into their seemingly perpetual problem.
But the rest of their opponents have had that time to rehab and recover from injuries, too.
Safety protocols mean Gordon Hayward will definitely miss time if Celtics make a deep playoff run
Even if the Celtics can stay healthy, a deep playoff run will see them short-handed for at least a little while.
Gordon Hayward’s wife, Robyn, is due to have the couple’s fourth child in September. Based on the timeline of the NBA’s return, conference semifinals will start at the end of August, conference finals mid-way through September and the NBA Finals around Sept. 30.
Hayward has made it clear that he will leave the bubble with an excused absence if the Celtics are still playing when Robyn goes into labor. But that means he must test negative for the coronavirus every day he’s off campus, and then has to quarantine for four days once he returns, per league protocol.
Should Hayward test positive, that’s another story. One that would probably result in the end of his season. But what is he going to do? Miss the birth of his first son? Definitely not.
Home-court advantage is eliminated, but seeding still matters
The advantage to playing out the season in a centralized, neutral location is that the need to secure home-court advantage is tossed out the window.
The Celtics have secured a playoff berth with their work to this point. However, at third in the East standings, they currently line up to face the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs should things stay the way they are.
That’s not ideal, but it will be difficult for Boston to make up three games (with just eight to play) to knock the defending champion Toronto Raptors out of the two seed. If the C’s can’t pull it off, their chances at avoiding a dreaded matchup against the Sixers are still pretty good.
Philadelphia is currently tied with Indiana for the five seed (the Pacers get the tiebreaker) and two games behind the Miami Heat at No. 4. However, the Sixers are much better than their record suggests, especially with Ben Simmons healthy. Even with their questionable chemistry and horrible road record (which doesn’t matter anymore), the Sixers have had the Celtics’ number all season, defeating them in three of four meetings.
But making a push to move up to the four or five seed is entirely plausible for Philadelphia. Especially with Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo opting out of the return.
So Celtics fans should be rooting for the Sixers to make up some ground in the seeding round in hopes that they don’t have to see Philadelphia first in the NBA Playoffs. Should a No. 3 Celtics team happen to get by a No. 6 Sixers squad, it sets them up to potentially face the No. 2 Raptors next, likely followed by the No. 1 Bucks from there. That road to the playoffs sounds like the worst-case scenario, unless of course, the Heat managed to jump the Celtics in the standings while the Sixers moved up over the Pacers as well.
That is less likely but would mean Boston would have to play Philadelphia in the first round and then the first-place Bucks in the second. Yikes.
The Celtics lucked out with their seeding schedule
Clearly, a lot is riding on these eight regular-season seed games. Fortunately for the Celtics, they were granted one of the easier schedules. After starting off against the Bucks, Boston goes on to face the Portland Trail Blazers, Miami, Brooklyn Nets, Raptors, Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies before closing out against the Washington Wizards.
This gives the Celtics some hope at catching up to Toronto and creating enough space between them and the fourth-place Heat, who both were dealt with two of the more difficult slates of games. If Boston can’t do that, at least Philadelphia has a great shot at earning the four or five seed with its desirable regular-season schedule.
Don’t forget about that Grizzlies draft pick
Boston is also affected by this return-to-play plan with how Memphis fares. As a reminder, the Celtics are set to receive the Grizzlies’ protected first-round draft pick in the 2020 draft.
The Grizzlies sit in the eight spot in the West, but maintaining that won’t be easy. Just 3 1/2 games ahead of the Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, they could easily fall in the standings. Even if they manage to stay put, a play-in tournament would be forced should any team finish within four games of the eighth seed.
The draft pick is top-six protected, but if Memphis can’t secure a playoff bid and falls into the lottery and earns a top-four selection, the Celtics will have to wait until next year for the Grizzlies’ unprotected pick.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images