After the first three days of seeding game action in the Orlando bubble, we’ve been able to get a glimpse of all 22 teams on the hardwood for the first time in four months.
Before the seeding games began, the Celtics were favored to hold onto the No. 3 seed in the East and draw the Indiana Pacers in a first round matchup for the second straight season. However, a string of results over the weekend in Orlando has started to open the door to more possibilities for the C’s, including what most consider the worst-case scenario for Boston in the first round: A date with the Philadelphia 76ers.
To get a better sense of what to watch for the East over the coming two weeks as well as single out key matchups for the playoff race, let’s check in on where the East playoff picture stands and what options the Celtics may consider when it comes to seeding positioning down the stretch.
No. 1 Milwaukee (54-12)
6.5 game lead over Toronto
Overview: The Bucks never really had anything to play for in their seeding games since one more win or a Raptors loss will officially lock up the top seed in the East for them this postseason. That will give them the flexibility to rest rotation players as they choose and ease back injured/recovering players like Eric Bledsoe, Pat Connaughton and Marvin Williams (back) into the rotation. They will want to build guys up to a usual playoffs minutes load but the sense of urgency won't be there for them to win games outright compared to other teams.
Key games from C’s perspective: 8/6 vs. MIA, 8/13 vs. MEM
Analysis: The Heat are knocking on the door of the No. 3 seed already so the C’s might need some help from the Bucks in this matchup to hold onto it. How motivated the Bucks will be in this matchup is less clear. The same goes for the Memphis matchup as the Celtics stand to benefit from the Grizzlies falling into a playoff play-in scenario out West.
No. 2 Toronto (47-18)
4 game lead over Boston (C’s have 2-1 edge in head-to-head with one game to play)
Overview: A healthy Toronto squad made an impressive debut on Saturday night in bubble play by running away from the Lakers in the second half in the midst of a 15-point win. Like the Bucks, the Lakers will have limited motivation in Saturday’s game after a win over the Clippers in the bubble opener essentially locked them into the No. 1 seed out West. Still this Raptors team looks healthy and they will be looking to face an inferior East opponent on paper (Orlando) by locking up the No. 2 spot rather than risk rolling the dice with a far more talented opponent like the Pacers or Sixers.
Remaining schedule: vs. MIA, vs. ORL, vs. BOS, vs. MEM, vs. MIL, vs. PHI, vs. DEN
Analysis: A win over the Celtics on Friday would wrap up the No. 2 seed and the tiebreaker but that may not even be necessary if the C’s stumble at all before then. Making up four games in the standings with just seven to play will be nearly insurmountable for the C’s without a complete collapse from the Raptors. It’s a tough schedule overall with five over .500 opponents but expecting them to have a record worse than 3-4 feels like a reach. The Raptors still will have some influence on the rest of the East standings with matchups looming against the Heat on Monday and the Sixers on August 12th. Both outcomes could impact the C’s first-round matchups from both sides of the bracket. That Friday 8/9 matchup against the Raps for Boston will be a nice tuneup but probably won’t have any serious implications on the No. 2 seed with the way the seeding games have started. It’s simply too big of a hill to climb for Boston unless they run the table.
No. 3 Boston (43-22)
4 GB of TOR, 1.5 games ahead of MIA
Overview: The Celtics got their toughest matchup on paper out of the way in the opener but that doesn’t mean holding onto the No. 3 seed will be easy. The Heat came out of the gate with a win in one of their tough games over the Nuggets, which has suddenly made Tuesday’s matchup with the C’s one worth watching. The one thing Boston has in its favor here is having played one more game than the Heat before the eight bubble games happened. That fact renders any potential tiebreaker between the two teams meaningless since they won’t finish with the same number of games played (Boston will have 72, Miami 73)
Remaining schedule: POR, MIA, BKN, TOR, ORL, MEM, WAS
Analysis: It does not look imposing but there are going to be some motivated teams (POR, ORL, MEM) that are fighting for their playoff lives in those matchup. The Wizards and Nets game should be gimmes but every other opponent should pose a challenge. If the C’s fall on Tuesday night to the Heat, all bets are off in regards to them locking up the No. 3 seed before the end of the seeding games. Brad Stevens will have some very interesting choices to make in regards to resting his starters at that point, since it’s entirely possible that dropping down to No. 4 could benefit the C’s for their first-round matchup (if Pacers stick at No. 5). That would force Boston to face Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Semifinals but that’s a road the C’s are going to have to go through either way. A 5-2 finish or a 4-3 overall (including a win over Miami) should lock up the No. 3 seed. Otherwise, that spot should be still up for grabs heading into the final week of seeding games.
No. 4 Miami (42-24)
1.5 GB of BOS, 2 games ahead of IND
Overview: The Heat are healthy in the bubble despite a couple late arrivals to Orlando and they dispatched an