- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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So it comes down to this: Some time in late April or early May, the Boston Celtics will visit Cleveland to open a best-of-seven, second-round series in the Eastern Conference playoffs that will define their 2009-10 season.
By virtue of Tuesday's loss in Chicago, the Celtics guaranteed themselves a disappointing fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. As Kevin Garnett noted, "Our goal was set a lot higher, but we'll take it."
Indeed, there's no sense in further lamenting Boston's inconsistent play since Christmas. Sure, it cost them the chance to shimmy at least one spot higher on the postseason pyramid, but that didn't happen.
Forget the fact that it really doesn't matter if the Celtics had won 50 games or 40 -- the fourth seed was as low as a division champ could go -- considering they boast an 11-game cushion in the Atlantic Division entering the final day of the regular season.
For the past week, coach Doc Rivers has preached that his team will ultimately be judged by what it accomplishes in the postseason, and now we have a pretty good idea how it will play out.
Let's be honest: The Celtics should get past whoever emerges as the No. 5 seed, whether it's the Miami Heat (most likely) or Milwaukee Bucks. Given Boston's inability to string together consistent efforts, it might not be a cakewalk, but there's little doubt Boston will advance.
And the Celtics' reward, barring the unfathomable, will be a meeting with soon-to-be Most Valuable Player LeBron James and the NBA's only 60-win team.
Win that series and all the troubles are forgotten. Lose and the 2009-10 season will be remembered as one of missed opportunities.
The Celtics seemed resigned to their fate.
"It is what it is," said Rivers. "I would like a three, two or one, but we didn't get it. It's going to be a tough series, whoever we play. We just have to be ready to play."
Echoed Paul Pierce: "It is what it is. It looks like we're probably going to play Miami. Either way, three or four [seed], it's going to be a tough road. One game left, we have everybody healthy going into the playoffs, which was the No. 1 goal going into the season."
As Pierce noted, there are positives Boston can lean on entering the second season. For a team that's struggled to find consistency since injuries arrived at Christmas, the Celtics appear in fine health (at least based on what they've disclosed publicly).
With its postseason seed sealed, Boston can rest its Big Three Wednesday against Milwaukee if it chooses (and it should). Then the Celtics could have as many as two practice days (even if they take Thursday off) depending on which day their first-round series opens (that will be announced Wednesday night).
What's more, Pierce and Ray Allen are playing some of their best ball of the season, reflected in increased scoring of late. Pierce has looked downright unstoppable at times as he rediscovers his mid-range game, while Allen is heating up on both sides of the arc.
But even Boston's captain admitted that -- as healthy as he is -- defense will determine how far this team will go in the postseason, particularly if (err, when) it meets Cleveland.
"I'm feeling good," said Pierce. "My body is pretty much healed, this is exactly where I want to be at this point in the season. I feel like I've gotten into a nice groove offensively and that's something we're going to need going into the playoffs. I hope to keep it going and do the things necessary to help this team win.
"The key for us has got to be our defense. We didn't get one stop the last three minutes of [Tuesday's loss to Chicago]. It doesn't matter what I do offensively, if we don't get these stops, it's going to be tough for us to win."
Does he think the Celtics are close to where they need to be defensively?
"I think so," said Pierce. "The sense of urgency has to be there. I thought we should have gotten up on [the Bulls] a little more, but we let them get into their spots. Hopefully we learned from this. We're going to come across some elite scorers in these playoffs. We have to learn from these types of games that, when a guy gets going, we have to get the ball at the end."
Go ahead and start getting ready for LeBron, Paul. The series seems inevitable, particularly after the fireworks that erupted when the teams met on Easter Sunday.
Boston finished 2-2 against the Cavaliers in the regular season and you can make the case they should have won the first meeting in Boston, when Cleveland rallied from 20 points down in the second half (though a healthy Anderson Varejao might have tipped the scales in favor of Cleveland in the C's win earlier this month).
But underdogs or not, the Celtics' season will be judged by how they fare against the Cavaliers. Fair or not, anything less than a series victory will be a failure.
"That's what it is, man," said Garnett. "We made our bed, now we gotta lie in it."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann