To be healthy or to be competitive?
Celtics try to balance injuries with going for a No. 1 playoff seed
PHILADELPHIA -- Asked after Friday's loss to the 76ers if Philadelphia was the type of team that no top seed in the Eastern Conference would want to run into during the early rounds of the playoffs, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers quickly dismissed the notion.
"I think everybody wants to run into everybody in the playoffs, really," said Rivers. "I hear that all the time. You know, it's usually the ninth team. Nobody wanted to play us, and I always say, 'Actually, they really did. They didn't want to play the eighth team.' You know what I mean?
"I don't think anybody cares who they play. We don't, I can tell you that. At the end of the day, we've just got to play."
If only it were that simple.[+] EnlargeRocky Widner/Getty ImagesThe Celtics have been in this predicament before. Is there anything to learn from last year's solution?
Here's the predicament facing Rivers and the Celtics: After sitting alone atop the Eastern Conference for much of the 2010-11 season, Boston finds itself in a bit of a dogfight -- or maybe it's a bullfight -- over the final month of the regular season. Thanks to back-to-back Boston losses, Chicago has moved within a half-game of the Celtics atop the East (and the Heat are lingering three games back, as well).
Some years, the difference between a No. 1 and No. 2 seed might be marginal. This season? It's a Shaq-sized gap.
As one sage scribe quipped in the Philadelphia press room Friday, only the top seed in the East gets a first-round bye. (Let's just say few teams would be quivering at the prospects of playing an Indiana team that's currently positioned as the eighth seed, especially considering the Pacers are 11 games under .500 and have endured an in-season coaching change.)
And while you rarely hear the East describe without the qualifier of "top heavy," there's no slam dunks among the other potential playoff seeds. From a 76ers squad residing in the seventh seed that has played some of the East's best ball over the past month and a half, to an upgraded Knicks squad pegged at No. 6 and reaping the benefits of adding Carmelo Anthony before the trade deadline.
What's the difference between a No. 1 and 2 seed at the moment? If top seeds won out under the current playoff alignment, Boston's playoff path out of the East would feature Indiana, Orlando and Chicago. Daunting, no doubt, but Boston would also boast home-court advantage throughout. Slide Boston to No. 3 and the path becomes New York, Miami and Chicago, with the Celtics boasting home-court advantage only in the opening round.
According to John Hollinger's latest playoff odds, the Celtics boast a 37.8 percent chance at landing the top seed in the East. The Bulls actually have the best odds with a 58.9 percent chance (the Heat boast the other 3.2 percent available). Both teams have less-than-daunting schedules down the stretch, particularly the Bulls in a softer Central Division (at least the Atlantic got beefed up at the deadline).
The Celtics are no strangers to the strain a feisty first-round opponent can inflict -- we're looking at you, 2008 Hawks and 2009 Bulls -- and have to at least be aware of the value of exerting a little extra effort over the final month of the season to potentially snag that top seed.
But at what cost?
With 19 games still to be played, the Celtics have roughly a quarter of their schedule to navigate. Cramming that much game action into a 31-day span is no joy for an ailing and aging team. What's more, eight of those contests are against teams with records above .500 (though, for a Boston team that's struggled against its lesser opponents, maybe it's the 11 games against the sub-.500 squads that ought to worry the Celtics more).
More importantly, for the second straight season, Boston's biggest conundrum is health. Do you sacrifice regular-season wins with the idea of having your players in peak physical shape for the playoffs? That's a strategy that proved worthwhile last year, but it might have come at the cost of expending too much energy against tougher playoff opponents and running out of gas at the finish line in the NBA Finals.
Even as Boston seeks to get trade acquisitions Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic acclimated, this while scrapheap pickups such as Troy Murphy, Sasha Pavlovic and Carlos Arroyo dive headfirst into a new playbook, Boston feels like it should still be winning games. And it probably would, if not for the fact that five other players are sidelined by injuries.
Boston has played recent games without sixth man Glen Davis (left knee strain), Von Wafer (right calf sprain), Delonte West (right ankle sprain), Shaquille O'Neal (right foot injuries) and Jermaine O'Neal (left knee surgery). Rivers noted after Wednesday's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers that just one more big body -- someone like Davis -- might have been enough to ensure Boston emerged from that game with a win.
And, as Davis himself noted, had this been the playoffs, he would have been healthy enough to play. But rather than risk aggravating a left knee that's ailed him all season, the Celtics exercised extreme caution and kept him on the shelf during the two recent losses.
Will that come back to bite them in the East seedings? Will it have been worth it if Davis doesn't miss another game the rest of the season?
Unfortunately there's no alternate universe simulator to gauge what was the right or wrong decision. Just like we'll never know if Boston's roster overhaul put this team in better position to contend for Banner 18, the Celtics are simply operating on the knowledge accrued from battling the injury bug ever since sending Banner 17 to the rafters.
"We still want to win the games," said Rivers, noting he's doing his best to drive down minutes even at the potential cost of losing games. It's clear he sees the biggest value in heath, knowing his team won't have a chance to navigate an easy or difficult playoff path unless it has all of its bodies.
"We want the No. 1 seed," added Rivers, "but we want health, too."
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
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