The Boston Celtics are all but assured a spot in this year’s NBA play-in tournament.
A team that entered the season with lofty expectations after three trips to the Eastern Conference finals over the past four seasons will now be required to fend off at least one other fringe playoff foe just to punch its actual postseason pass.
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Unlike some of their play-in brethren, finishing in spots 7 through 10 is not something the Celtics will celebrate. But it is their reality.
So here’s everything you need to know about what’s ahead for the Celtics:
The Celtics are (essentially) the No. 7 seed
Boston’s hopes of a top-6 spot are not fully dashed. But any New York Knicks win or Celtics loss over the final three games will lock in Boston’s play-in fate.
|Team||GB From No. 1|
|4. Atlanta Hawks||9|
|5. Miami Heat||9|
|6. New York Knicks||9|
|7. Boston Celtics||12|
|8. Charlotte Hornets||14|
|9. Indiana Pacers||14|
|10. Washington Wizards||15|
The two teams meet in the regular-season finale on Sunday but, unless the Celtics win their next two games and the Knicks lose their next two (vs. play-in chasers San Antonio and Charlotte), it won’t be a clash for the final non-play-in spot.
Boston cannot catch the Atlanta Hawks or Miami Heat because they do not own the head-to-head tie-breaker against either team.
The Hornets, Pacers and Wizards are all potential play-in foes
Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities chart -- based on 10,000 daily simulations -- has Indiana, Charlotte, and Washington with pretty similar odds for the No. 8 spot. The Hornets and Pacers have matching 33-36 records but Charlotte owns the head-to-head tie-breaker, which could aid the Hornets' quest for that spot. Boston needs to be keeping an eye on all three teams because of the quirky play-in format.
Celtics would have two strikes in the play-in tournament
By earning the No. 7 (or 8) seed, a team essentially gets two chances to earn entry into the actual playoff bracket. Here’s how the play-in tournament works:
- No. 7 seed hosts No. 8 seed; winner earns No. 7 seed.
- No. 9 seed hosts No. 10 seed; loser is eliminated from tournament.
- Loser of 7-8 game hosts winner of 9-10 game; winner earns No. 8 seed.
So if the play-in tournament started today, Boston would host Charlotte, while Indiana would host Washington.
The play-in tournament takes place May 18-21 and the full-fledged playoffs tip on May 22.
Eyes on race for East's top seeds
If the Celtics advance out of the play-in tournament, they would draw either the No. 2 seed in the East if they win in Game 1 of the play-in, or the No. 1 seed if it took two tries.
The Philadelphia 76ers will clinch the No. 1 seed with their next victory while the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are still jockeying for the No. 2 spot.
|Team||GB From No. 1|
|1. Philadelphia 76ers||--|
|2. Brooklyn Nets||2|
|3. Milwaukee Bucks||3|
Brooklyn has a one-game lead and Basketball Reference’s projections have them at 75.6 percent to earn the No. 2 seed, but Milwaukee does own the head-to-head tie-breaker.
What happens if Celtics don't make it out of the play-in tournament?
If the Celtics lost twice in the play-in tournament, they’d fall into the NBA lottery. Given the long odds at them making a playoff run given their health situation and inconsistent play this season, there are some who will wonder if it’d almost be better for Boston to improve its draft position.
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Where Boston would slot in the lottery would depend on its final regular-season record and how the play-in tournament shakes out. But it’s unlikely they’d be lower than 13th, which comes with only a 4.8 percent chance of vaulting into the top four (and just a 1 percent chance at the top spot).
Even in the play-in tournament, Boston is trending towards the No. 16 pick overall.
Rest stop ahead?
A couple of things to keep in mind over Boston’s final three games:
1. If the team maintains its rest plan with Kemba Walker, he will not play in two of the final three games including Wednesday’s second night of a back-to-back in Cleveland.
2. Locking up that No. 7 seed could encourage coach Brad Stevens to rest other players, including All-Star Jayson Tatum, at the finish line.
|at Cleveland Cavaliers||Wed., May 12|
|at Minnesota Timberwolves||Sat., May 15|
|at New York Knicks||Sun., May 16|
The Celtics would have been looking at as much as a full week off before the playoffs had they landed a top-six seed -- something that could have been handy for a team decimated by the grind of the 2020-21 calendar.
Instead, Boston will have no more than a two-day break before the play-in tournament starts next week.