- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- Call it a postseason appetizer. During a four-game stretch over the next six days, the Boston Celtics will play the three Eastern Conference teams they likely will have to beat in order to get back to the NBA Finals.
Unlike the postseason, Boston doesn't necessarily have to win these three games. Of course, it wouldn't hurt their cause, given the jockeying for postseason seeding.
If the playoffs started Monday and top seeds won out, the Celtics' projected playoff path would go through the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls. Boston hosts the 76ers on Tuesday before visiting the Bulls on Thursday and the Heat on Sunday.
Instead of coasting to the regular-season finish line, Boston must joust with three of the top six teams in the East (the current No. 7, the New York Knicks, loom in the regular-season finale April 13). For a team that's played to the level of its competition, that might be the best thing for these roller-coaster Celtics.
"I would rather have it that way," Ray Allen said. "These last games, I want them to be the best teams in the NBA. I want them to be the teams that are going to challenge us and [will] keep everybody focused, and let everybody know that they've got to play so that we go into the playoffs with that intensity."
Ask the Celtics about their late-season to-do list and they'll tell you it centers around (1) getting -- and staying -- healthy and (2) developing a playoff rhythm.
Losers of eight of their last 15 games -- never enduring (or enjoying) a streak of more than two losses (or wins) during that stretch -- it's clear Boston is searching for consistency, something it thought full health would bring. And while the team boasted 14 healthy bodies at practice Monday, the absence of starting center Shaquille O'Neal, who suffered his latest setback with a right calf strain Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, leaves the Celtics wondering exactly how their team will look when the second season arrives.
Coach Doc Rivers thinks all of his big men will be ready to go by the playoffs and admits his team might not fully come together until that happens. Knowing that, how does Boston operate over the next 10 days, particularly with a schedule heavy on potential playoff foes?
Rivers wants to mix quality play with measured rest. That's no easy task. But here's one thing you can count one: Don't expect Rivers to get caught up in the hype of these matchups.
"You know me by now, the whole statement [game] crap. If they beat us and they make a statement, do you think that matters in Game 1 [of a postseason series]?" Rivers asked. "It doesn't matter at all. Let's beat them when they're making a statement. Maybe that will make a statement.
"I just want to win. The Spurs game is a great example. Both teams wanted to make a statement. After the game, it didn't matter to either team, but during the game, it was a lot of fun."
That Spurs game, a 107-97 Boston win on March 31, may serve as the blueprint for the rest of the Celtics' season. Boston was able to lean on its depth and not run its top eight into the ground, then put together some inspired second-half play while emerging with a feel-good win.
"I'd like to see us have great energy starting the game and great energy finishing the game," Allen said. "How we played in San Antonio, I thought we played that way throughout. They jumped on us early, but we still consistently got the ball up the floor, we played great defense. Regardless of who we play, that's the way I want to see us play for the rest of these games."
For the Celtics, a top seed is likely out of reach as the Bulls hold a 2 ½-game lead atop the Eastern Conference standings. Even with a victory Thursday at Chicago, Boston's chief concern should be trying to leap back in front of the Heat, who currently sits a half-game ahead of the Celtics.
As for the importance of finishing strong, there's no definitive path to postseason glory. During the 2008 championship campaign, the Celtics won 11 of their final 12 regular-season games. Last season, Boston lost seven of its final 10 before marching to the Finals.
Boston can win the season series over Chicago and Philadelphia with victories this week, and sweep its four games with Miami with a win in South Beach on Sunday. Rivers doesn't put stock in any of it.
"The year we won it [in 2008], we swept Atlanta in the regular season, then they took us to seven games [in the opening round]," Rivers said. "You just never know."
And then there are injuries. The 76ers will be without guard Lou Williams, who has been shut down for the remainder of the regular season because of a hamstring ailment. But Rivers expects to see Williams in the postseason.
That's part of the reason he's not big on overdoing these matchups.
"You don't know what the regular season is -- teams are coming off four [games] in five [nights], injuries, or a team may be going through a funk," Rivers said. "During the playoffs, you're getting their best.
"One team may play harder than the other during the regular season. In the playoffs, everyone plays hard."
So remember, this is merely an appetizer. Don't fill up before the main course.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
4hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann