Commentary

In tight race, C's keep eyes on the prize

Earning top seed in playoffs is the priority as Boston tackles final 12 games

Updated: March 25, 2011, 6:40 PM ET
By Peter May | ESPNBoston.com

In some locker rooms around the NBA, there is a list of the updated division and conference standings, reminding the team where it is, where it needs to go and where it need not go.

You won't see any of that in the Celtics' locker room at TD Garden. There are a couple inspirational sayings, a lot of photographs of Celtics past and present, and absolutely no indication of where the Celtics stand in the Eastern Conference. That's by design, of course.

"I haven't even mentioned it to them,'' Doc Rivers said. "But I'd be surprised if they didn't know. You guys ask them all the time."

Of course they know. Of course he knows. They all know Chicago has passed them and that Miami is breathing down their necks. They talk constantly about having the No. 1 seed and the home-court advantage that comes with it. It's been an ongoing refrain since the team lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the road. (It lost Game 6 as well.)

"We want that home court for the playoffs,'' Glen Davis asserted after Wednesday's loss to Memphis, all the while insisting he really didn't pay any attention to the standings. "We've got to get it together."

Paul Pierce chimed in, "We've got to get our heads right for the rest of the season. It's a mental thing now. We want to get the No. 1 overall seed."

Wednesday's result certainly didn't help the cause -- but the cause is far from lost. The Celtics trail the Bulls by only one game. Each team has 12 games left.

Pierce We've got to get our heads right for the rest of the season. It's a mental thing now. We want to get the No. 1 overall seed.

-- Celtics forward Paul Pierce

The good news for the Celtics: No remaining home games against the Western Conference, whose teams are responsible for their seven home losses.

The bad news for the Celtics: They have one more game against the Bulls -- in Chicago -- and one more game against the Heat -- in Miami. They cannot lose the season series to Chicago (Boston is up 2-1) and they already have won the season series against Miami (up 3-0). Oh yeah, they also have to play the Spurs in San Antonio (although Tim Duncan might be out of that one) and the Hawks in Atlanta the very next night. Do we need a reminder that the Celtics have looked very Timberwolvesian on the second leg of back-to-backs this season?

Looking ahead, it might be imprudent to project a Boston win in Chicago on April 7, even if the O'Neals are back and, at least theoretically, available for duty. The same might be said for the game in Miami three nights later. But there are other, winnable games in the next three weeks and the Celtics, despite their public entreaties to the contrary, do have to keep an eye on the standings, a close eye, even if they'll have to go somewhere other than the locker room to see them.

Here's why. Can we agree that there are three really, really, really good teams in the Eastern Conference? You can put Orlando in the mix if you want, but the Magic, to me, seem a slight step behind Boston, Chicago and Miami. (That williwaw that just blew by was Stan Van Gundy spitting fire.) Therefore, if you finish at No. 1, you avoid the possibility of having to play both Chicago and Miami, who, we are assuming, will win their first-round matchups.

Wouldn't you rather face Orlando in the second round than, say, Miami? I would. I think Rivers would, too, and not just because he'd get to sleep in his own bed. Then again, you may recall last year that it was thought to be really, really unadvisable to have to play Cleveland in the second round. The Celtics did and we all know what happened.

So there is a need of sorts to get the No. 1 seed not only for the home-court advantage, but also for the likely identity of your opponent. (It could also mean the difference between New York and Indiana in the first round.) The Celtics have one advantage over the Bulls in these next 20 days that could come into play and give them the No. 1 seed even if they lose to the Bulls on April 7 and end up with the same record: the NBA's tiebreaker system. It could be their ally.

The first tiebreaker is head-to-head play and, assuming Chicago wins at home, that would make the teams 2-2. It's not a stretch to pencil in a 'W' for the Bulls in that game. Chicago has won 13 straight at the United Center and has lost just four times at home all season. The next tiebreaker is record within the division, but only if the two teams are in the same division. So we move on to No. 3, which is the record within the conference.

As of now, the Celtics have a three-loss advantage over Chicago. (That's the only upside of losing all those games to Western Conference teams.) Again, assuming a Boston loss in Chicago, that margin shrinks to two games. But it's still worth noting going into the final 12 games.

Ten of the Celtics' last dozen games are against Eastern Conference teams, the exceptions being Sunday at Minnesota and a week from Friday against the aforementioned Spurs. The Celtics are 33-9 against the East, including an impressive 21-0 at home. But of their 10 remaining games against conference opponents, six are against likely playoff teams (yes, as much as it pains me, I must include Indiana in that group).

The Bulls are 31-12 against the East. They have nine games left against conference foes, the toughest being the Celtics and Orlando (on the road, April 10). Four of their nine conference games remaining are against playoff teams: Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and New York. The Bulls' three games left against the Western Conference are home games against Memphis and Phoenix and a roadie at Minnesota.

Again, all this comes into play only if the teams finish with identical records. It might be wise to remember that Miami lurks as well, two games behind the Celtics in the loss column and three behind the Bulls.

If the three teams are tied, you need not call MIT. The first tiebreaker in this case would be winning percentage among the tied teams. Miami loses big here; it is 0-6 against the Celtics and Bulls with one game left. The Heat would quickly fall to No. 3. If the Celtics were to win in Miami and the three teams tied, Boston would win via a 6-2 record against the tied teams. If Boston lost, Chicago would prevail via a 5-2 record.

The Celtics would like to make all of this moot by overtaking the Bulls in these final 12 games. If they don't, they can look back to plenty of odious losses on the road (Washington, New Jersey, Cleveland, Toronto). But if they can keep up the good work in the conference, they could well have the upper hand, even if they lose in Chicago and even if they finish in a tie with the Bulls.

Otherwise, the road back to the NBA Finals gets a lot harder.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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