It took them long enough, but the Boston Celtics are finally back on top. Well, kind of. Monday's win over the Bobcats pushed the Celts into a first-place tie with the 76ers in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.
Boston and Philadelphia are both 27-22, but the Sixers have already clinched the tiebreaker with two wins over the Celtics in Philadelphia earlier this month. The two will meet once more in April in their only game at TD Garden this season.
Once something the Celtics could take for granted, first place in the division is no longer a lock. Philly has come from nowhere (but don't tell Doug Collins that) and New York, which has been the textbook definition of a streaky team this season, are both giving Boston a run for its money. Toronto (11.5 games back) and New Jersey (12 games back) are non-factors at this point.
Don't be fooled, first place is important. Why? The division winner is guaranteed a top four seed in the conference, thus avoiding a first round matchup with the Bulls or Heat. Right now, as the No. 7 seed (again, due to Philly's tiebreaker), Boston would face Miami in the postseason's opening round. Win the division, and the green would play the Pacers. That's a pretty big difference.
But the road ahead isn't easy. Boston wraps up the week with games against the Jazz and Timberwolves. Then, the fun begins. Miami and San Antonio come to town next Sunday and Wednesday, then the Celtics head on the road to play Chicago on Friday and Indiana on Saturday before returning to the Garden to host Philadelphia the next Sunday. Minus Utah and Minnesota, those are all playoff teams. No doubt about it, the Celtics have their work cut out for them.
By comparison, the Sixers' upcoming schedule is much easier leading up to their rematch with the Celtics. Philly plays teams such as Cleveland, Washington and Toronto at the beginning of April, but it still has to face Miami, Atlanta and Orlando. After their season finale with the C's in Boston, the 76ers face New Jersey three times, as well as Toronto, Cleveland and Detroit. As for the Celtics, they'll face Miami (twice), Atlanta (twice), New York and Orlando, among others.
The scales are definitely tipped towards Philadelphia, so Boston will have to step up its game. Considering the injuries to Jermaine O'Neal, Mickael Pietrus and now Ray Allen, not to mention Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox (both of whom are no longer with the team), that's easier said than done. Allen isn't expected to miss all that much time from what we know, and Pietrus could return shortly. O'Neal is done for the year, meaning that Kevin Garnett is the Celtics' starting center and Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins are the backups. Not exactly a dream team to say the least.
Getting into the playoffs is the first goal, one that the Celtics are close to accomplishing. New York is 2.5 games behind Boston in the eighth seed, but the Milwaukee Bucks are now five games back as we enter the final stretch. So it's pretty safe to say that the Celts will get there, but if they aren't a fourth seed or higher, advancing will be difficult. Ergo, winning the division is critical.
Enjoy first place for now, Celtics fans. But know this: it's not over, and there's a long road ahead.