There’s at least one thing we can say about the rest of the Boston Celtics’ season, they are not playing for the number one seed in the East. As it stands now, the 47-8 Milwaukee Bucks are in position to hold onto the best record in the Eastern Conference, in no small part thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s bid to win back-to-back MVP awards. The Celtics, meanwhile, are 38-16 which puts them behind both the Bucks and the 40-15 Toronto Raptors. So what exactly are the third-place Celtics going for here?
If you ask guard Marcus Smart, they are going for everything. “We really, really, really, really have a chance this year,” he told MassLive on Wednesday, “and it’s very evident to us. I think it’s starting to be evident to people around the league, and it’s evident to fans around the league.”
A bold statement, but perhaps not entirely untrue. The NBA season always comes down to the playoffs, but we still have a way to go before then. 28 games remain in the regular season, what does Boston plan to do with them? Well, for starters, if winning the East is pretty much out of the question for the Celtics, they shouldn’t downplay the advantages of landing in that tantalizing second slot.
At this moment, the Celtics should be focused on trying to overtake the Raptors. Considering how tough Milwaukee looks right now, they would prefer to put off facing them for as long as possible. It might be tricky. As of the All-Star break, the Celtics were in 19th place in terms of strength-of-schedule, essentially tying them with the Raptors. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat and the Philadelphia 76ers, the two teams directly below them in the standings in the East, look to have a much more favorable slate of games.
In other words, things aren’t going to get super-easy for the Celtics if they want to keep pace in the East and particularly if they want to overtake the Raptors for that second seed. Perhaps there are some who still see the Raptors’ championship as a one-off and are still waiting for the moment that the team remembers it no longer has Kawhi Leonard and then plummets to the ground Wile E. Coyote style. These people are profoundly underestimating Toronto.
Even if they can’t better their postseason positioning, the Celtics can use these next few months to further establish their identity. If their entire roster is healthy and their best players are all at their peak, they could find a way to beat the Bucks in a seven-game series. Then? Well, as the Raptors could very well tell them, there are a lot of things that can happen in the Finals. Marcus Smart might not be wrong.
As the league headed into the break, the Celtics were treated to a glimpse of their best five players sharing the court, even if Jaylen Brown was still dealing with a worrisome calf. They had hoped that big man Robert Williams would be back by the start of March. It really looked like they were on the cusp of finally showing what their fully healthy roster would look like when their regular season resumed. As always, it wasn’t meant to be. Word came out yesterday that Kemba Walker would be sitting out tonight’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves with a sore knee following the 32 minutes he played in Sunday’s All-Star Game.
What would be best for the Celtics, who have gotten great stretches of games from all of their players throughout the season, would be to finally come together as a team and show that they can all play together as one. If they can, we might soon see a sneak preview of a future championship team. There’s a chance here. It’s not a great one, and it may even an extremely bad one, but those chances aren’t always there.