Celtics’ playoff path remains unclear as NBA enters final day of regular season – The Athletic

Celtics’ playoff path remains unclear as NBA enters final day of regular season – The Athletic


As the Celtics bench dismantled the Hornets in a 131-98 win Friday, it looked like a fun but meaningless basketball game for the team that clinched the top seed a while ago.

But in the East, serious battles were taking place. Boston’s place at the top was the only thing to start the evening. As the NBA prepares for Sunday’s final regular season games, a lot remains up in the air.

Boston’s playoff path is still unclear, so let’s see where things stand.

The Play-In Tournament will provide a little more suspense for the Celtics this season. They were seeded a year ago, so they faced Atlanta when the Hawks upset the Heat in the first round of Play-In. But now that the Celtics are at the top of the standings, they will have to wait until the final round of Play-In, as the loser of the 7-on-8 game faces the winner of the 9-on-10 game.

The Sixers beat Orlando 125-113 on Friday after Joel Embiid briefly left the game, keeping Philadelphia’s hopes of moving up to sixth place alive. That means the Magic must beat the Bucks on Sunday to avoid the Play-In. Milwaukee lost to Oklahoma City on Friday and the Knicks came back to beat the Nets, meaning Milwaukee will need a win to maintain the No. 2 seed.

However, since this only determines home-court advantage in the second round, the Bucks could rest their players, which would give Orlando a better chance of winning to stay in fifth place while being tied in the standings with Philadelphia and Indiana.

Even with a win, Philadelphia remains in seventh place due to tiebreaker rules. If the Pacers lose and the other two win, that would put Philadelphia fifth, Orlando sixth and Indiana seventh.

This affects Boston’s trajectory in two ways. The first is that Indiana would now be in the first round race against the Celtics, the team Boston has played five times this year and knows very well. While Miami’s playoff metamorphosis is an annual event, the Heat missed the first Play-In game last season before earning the eighth seed and ultimately beating the Celtics in the conference finals.

A Pacers loss on Sunday also puts Philadelphia back in the path of the Celtics in the second round, as the Sixers would be a solid matchup for Cleveland in the first round. Boston could theoretically face Atlanta, Philadelphia and Miami for the second year.

But with the Hawks stuck at 10th, it’s unlikely they’ll play their starters against Indiana on Sunday. Since the Sixers and Pacers face teams with nothing to lose, the East could come down to the Bucks-Magic game.

With the Knicks beating the Nets, they are now tied with the Bucks for the second seed after Milwaukee lost to OKC. Cleveland could still move into second place if Milwaukee and New York lose on Sunday.

So what does all this mean?

Unless the Bucks worry about home-court advantage in the second round, Orlando could face a bench team as it fights to stay out of the Play-In. The Hawks have no reason to play their starters against Indiana, so the likely outcome is that the Sixers remain seventh.

That would make Philadelphia and Miami the favorites for the playoffs and put a familiar foe in Boston’s path to opening the table.

Miami played Boston this year, and while the Heat were once again inconsistent, it’s Miami. The Heat do it every year. Jimmy Butler reaches another level, Erik Spoelstra drives circles around the league and they pull off surprises.

The Heat got the Bucks at the right time last season, with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing through injury. Well, guess what, it happened again, because the Heat could get the seventh seed and set up a rematch with Milwaukee. It’s still unclear whether the former MVP will recover from his calf injury in time to play in this series.

If that happens, a Sixers team cruising since Embiid’s return would be favored over Atlanta and Chicago to take on the Celtics. Last year, Boston managed to overtake Philadelphia thanks to its defense on James Harden. This time around, the Sixers don’t have as much inconsistency in their high-end offensive players, but they also don’t have someone who can single-handedly win a game like Harden did in last year’s series.

Things could bounce back in the Celtics’ favor on the final day of the regular season, but it appears they could find themselves facing a tough opponent in the first round.

Miami and Philly have the potential to play like contenders. Milwaukee has the tools to do it, but has been all over the place this year. Cleveland has looked like a contender for much of this season, but has lost a lot of momentum since winning against Boston after the All-Star break.

The best team the Celtics face could come in any round. It’s up to Boston to make this irrelevant.

(Photo by Payton Pritchard and Tre Mann of Charlotte: David Butler II / USA Today)



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