It wasn't long ago that we were wondering whether the Boston Celtics had enough left in the proverbial gas tank to even make the NBA playoffs in the abbreviated season. At the All-Star break, the C's were a pedestrian 15-17 and coming off a gruesome stretch that saw the team lose seven of eight, including five in a row with losses to the woeful Detroit Pistons not once, but twice.
Since then, though, despite a laundry list of injuries expected from a team this, shall we say, seasoned, the Celtics have been one of the best teams in the NBA record-wise, going 13-5 and moving into a statistical tie with the Philadelphia 76ers for first place in the Atlantic Division at the start of Friday's action. Kevin Garnett, as is usually the case when the C's are clicking, has been the spark plug. In the last few weeks he's occasionally looked more like the KG fans were used to seeing in his first couple of years with the team. When he plays like this, he's able to hide a lot of weaknesses, something this team has in spades (boat loads of injuries, little bench production and not a single NBA-caliber center on the roster). In addition, the team has gotten great production from some unlikely sources like the oft-debated Avery Bradley. Filling in at the shooting guard spot for the injured Ray Allen, Bradley has found himself a nice niche cutting away from the basketball on offense and pestering opposing point guards on defense.
As most of their success this season has been, the strong start of the second half has been built on the backs of the league's lower class. But wins are wins, and the Celtics need a lot of them. In the 18 games since the break, nine were against teams currently with winning records. In those nine games, the Celtics went 5-4, while going 8-1 against the dregs of the league. That's not a great mark, but it's dramatically improved from the 6-11 record the team posted against clubs with records above .500. Still, the team's inability to consistently beat the teams at the top of the league has to be disconcerting. Obviously, once the playoffs start, there will be no more games against world beaters like the Washington Wizards or the dreadful Charlotte Bobcats, which is why the Celtics had best find a way to win their division this season.
Typically speaking, the Atlantic Division has been something of an afterthought for this particular group of Celtics players, as it was essentially a foregone conclusion that the team would not only win the division, but do it by 10-plus games. This year, though, the division championship has taken on a different meaning because of the implications on seeding in the rapidly approaching playoffs.
It's pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point that, barring a bizarre set of circumstances, this will be the last season with this particular group of Celtics on the floor together. This has both the fans and even the players quietly preparing for the team's desperate last stand before a likely return to mediocrity while Danny Ainge attempts to rebuild in the coming seasons. The team is hoping that last stand will allow them to buck the (VERY) long odds against them winning a second NBA title. For them to even have a chance to do that, they must win the Atlantic Division.
If they were to sputter down the stretch this season -- not an unlikely scenario given that the team plays 12 clubs that are in playoff contention in the month of April -- the Celtics would almost certainly find themselves in a near impossible situation in the opening round of the playoffs. Their opening-round opponents would either be the East-leading Chicago Bulls or the behemoth Miami Heat in South Beach. The team's record against the two this season (a combined 1-3 with three games to play), and the ease with which Miami dispatched the Celtics last season doesn't exactly inspire confidence that they would be able to beat either four times in a seven-game series, let alone both of them. That valiant last stand Celtics fans are hoping for would likely be short lived and come to a devastating conclusion somewhere in the neighborhood of five or six games.
However, if the Celtics were to surpass the 76ers and take home their fifth consecutive division championship, that would not only avoid the opening-round series with Chicago or Miami, it would garner them home court advantage against a much more beatable foe like Indiana or Atlanta. This would give the Celtics a great opportunity to win one more playoff series together and build up some steam before squaring off against the Heat or Bulls in round two. In addition, by avoiding the big two, the Celtics would give the rest of the teams in the Eastern Conference an opportunity to clear the road for them, so to speak, by pulling off a rather unlikely upset in the opening round.
Ultimately, the chances are high that the Celtics will wind up having to beat at least one or (more likely) both to make an unlikely run through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Chances are also high that when the team is forced to square off with either Miami or Chicago, the season is going to come to an end. Winning the Atlantic Division again would at least postpone that for a little bit and give the fans an opportunity to see this group of players win one more playoff series before riding off into the sunset.