In Focus: Celtics down the stretch
The Boston Celtics' quest for the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference might have officially come to an end on Friday night with their 88-83 loss to the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls' 101-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons. With the loss, the Celtics actually slid back into third place behind the Miami Heat, which defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves 111-92 on Friday.
The Celtics now sit a full three games behind the Bulls in the standings and a half game behind Miami with seven games remaining in the regular season. The Celtics and Bulls will square off one final time in Chicago on Thursday, but even if they manage to win that game, they'll still have a tough time making up ground with limited time left on the schedule.
But there's still a host of things the Celtics can accomplish with 12 days to go.
The Celtics' overall health remains the topmost priority. When asked about the importance of seeding after Friday's loss to the Hawks, Rivers answered with a statement about the importance of health instead.
"It's important to be healthy," Rivers said. "We've been saying that for a while. ... We would really like to get healthy."
The Celtics suffered a setback in this department on Thursday when Nenad Krstic left the game with a right knee injury. His MRI on Saturday came back negative and he is listed as day-to-day.
Added Paul Pierce after Thursday's victory over the Spurs: "We need these bodies late in the season. Hopefully Krstic is not too hurt and he'll be back in a few days or a week or however long he takes, but we want to be healthy going into the playoffs, bottom line."
While there is no legitimate way to avoid injuries (besides sitting guys completely), the Celtics need to cross their fingers and hope that no one else (particularly of the Big Four) is forced out of action for the rest of the season.
Locking up the No. 2 seed
The first overall seed might be a long shot at this point, given how well the Bulls have been playing lately, but the second overall slot is still very much up for grabs. The Celtics have already claimed the season series with Miami by winning their first three meetings. If the teams end up with the same record at season's end, Boston will be awarded the second seed.
A pivotal final matchup between these clubs looms a week from Sunday, which could very well determine how the final seeding shakes out.
The Celtics, Bulls and Heat will finish as the top three teams in the East in some order. The advantage of landing the No. 1 seed -- apart from having home-court advantage -- is that the second and third seeds will have to square off in the second round of the playoffs, which means there will be one less elite team to worry about. While the Celtics will most likely miss out on that first overall seed, they can still lock up home-court advantage for the first two rounds with the second seed. This could be crucial if they are indeed on track for a second-round matchup with Miami.
After Friday's loss to the Hawks, Doc Rivers suggested to reporters he'd prefer to stay away from the third seed.
"We would like to get [seed] 1 or 2," he said.
Getting the O'Neals ready
The Celtics are still anxiously awaiting the return of Shaquille O'Neal, who's been out since Feb. 4 with lingering right foot and Achilles tendon issues. Doc Rivers recently suggested O'Neal could return to the floor as early as Sunday's game against the Detroit Pistons or Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers, in a potential first-round playoff preview.
O'Neal's return is vital not just because the Celtics are lacking in big men thanks to injuries to both Troy Murphy (right ankle sprain) and Krstic, but because he will surely be the team's starting center in the postseason. The Celtics will want to work him back into game shape as quickly as they can, and re-develop the sparkling chemistry that existed between O'Neal and Boston's four All-Star starters that existed at the start of the season.
"We need [Shaq] back," said Jermaine O'Neal on Thursday. "We need all of us to be back. We need the chemistry. We need to be in there with Krstic, figuring out what the rotation is going to be. We don't have much time."
Getting Jermaine O'Neal back was certainly a boost in this department. No one ever would have thought he would return before Shaq, but J.O. could prove to be a vital defensive player off the bench for the Celtics in the playoffs, and his role could become even bigger if Krstic is out for an extended period of time.
The early good news on Jermaine O'Neal is that there have been no reports indicating he's suffered any sort of physical setback since returning for two games from arthroscopic left knee surgery. Rivers wasn't planning on playing O'Neal against the Hawks on Friday given the back-to-back situation, but the Celtics were so thin up front with Krstic out that he had no choice but to insert him. O'Neal logged 16 minutes continued to work on getting his timing and rhythm back.
The stats will most likely come with time. Right now, the emphasis is on getting O'Neal readjusted to the speed of NBA games -- a treatment Shaq will undergo, as well, once he makes his return.
As one Celtic has emerged from a dreadful slump in Rajon Rondo, another has fallen into one.
Ray Allen has averaged more than 12 field goals per game for the vast majority of the season, but in his past six games he's attempted just 9.5 per contest, and as a result has averaged only 12.3 points per game over that same span. Even more disturbing have been Allen's shooting numbers. Over his past six games, Allen's shot just 36.8 percent from the field (21-of-57) and a subpar (by Allen's lofty standards), but still respectable, 35.7 percent from 3-point nation.
Allen needs more shots, plain and simple. A lot of the onus falls on his teammates, though, since Allen has primarily been a catch-and-shoot player since he arrived in Boston. While Allen wheels around the countless screens that are set for him to get open, it's the job of his teammates (Rondo in particular) to get to a spot where they can feed him the ball.
Allen did have a fairly encouraging game against the Hawks on Friday. He still registered only nine total field goal attempts, but he made four of them, and managed to convert two of his three looks from the arc.
Allen's production in the postseason will obviously be vital, and the Celtics cannot afford him to still be suffering through these shooting woes, no matter how well his teammates might be playing. In many past playoff series, Allen has been something of an X factor by having a superior matchup against an opponent. There's no reason to think that won't be true of this year's postseason as well, and the Celtics would love to have the Allen who's knocked down 45 percent of his 3-pointers this season.
Focusing on potential playoff opponents
With the first overall seed most likely out of reach at this point, the Celtics can be fairly confident they will be facing either the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers or the seventh-seeded New York Knicks in the opening round of the playoffs, depending on which seed they end up garnering themselves.
But seeing as one of those two teams will most likely combat the Celtics in the first round, the Celtics can already begin their postseason prep work. The Celtics will take on the 76ers at home on Tuesday and can get a final feel for a team that has played them tough all season. The 76ers are a young, athletic and hungry team, and such opponents have historically spelled trouble for the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs (think the Atlanta Hawks of 2008 or the Chicago Bulls of 2009).
The Celtics got their first glimpse of the new-look New York Knicks that feature Carmelo Anthony a little less than two weeks ago and emerged with a scrappy, hard-fought 96-86 victory. They will see the Knicks one last time in the regular-season finale at home on April 13. Depending on how things shake out until then, that game could hold significant weight in terms of seeding. Usually, the Celtics will look to rest their starters in the final games of the regular season, but if the finale ends up deciding which team the Celtics take on in the first round, Rivers might be tempted to go with his full arsenal of players.
Greg Payne is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com's coverage of the Celtics.