The Boston Celtics have clinched the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and their final two seeding games inside the bubble seem fairly perfunctory.
But there’s still plenty to be determined over what amounts to the final week of the NBA’s (not-so) regular season.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE GRIZZLIES PICK?
While Boston’s playoff seeding is locked in, the Grizzlies team they play on Tuesday evening is most certainly not.
Here’s the deal: The Western Conference will have a play-in game this weekend to determine the conference’s final playoff representative. The team with the eighth-best record in the West will play the team with the ninth-best record, but the No. 9 team must win twice in order to steal the final playoff spot. One win by the No. 8 team secures that spot for them.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Grizzlies, which begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 5 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.
The Grizzlies enter Tuesday clinging dearly to the No. 8 spot in the West but there were three other teams within one game in the Blazers, Spurs, and Suns. Memphis isn’t just trying to hold onto that prime No. 8 real estate to make the play-in easier, they’re trying to avoid getting bounced from the play-in all together.
Which is why Tuesday’s tilt means a whole bunch to Memphis. But the Celtics have some motivation of their own to try to knock the Grizzlies out of a playoff spot and it centers around the Grizzlies' first-round pick that Boston is in position to collect this offseason.
If Memphis sneaks into the playoffs, they’ll avoid the lottery and deliver a pick somewhere between spots 15-17, depending on whether their post-bubble record is better than Orlando and Brooklyn.
If the Grizzlies fall out of the playoffs, they’ll land in the lottery and almost certainly convey the No. 14 pick to Boston. There’s a 2.4 percent chance that pick could vault into the top 4, which would trigger Memphis’ protections and cause Memphis to instead deliver a 2021 unprotected first-round pick.
To put it simpler: The Celtics can better their potential draft spot by up to three positions if the Grizzlies don’t make the playoffs. The Memphis pick is set to be the best of Boston’s three potential first-round picks in the upcoming draft (they also have their own and a pick from Milwaukee).
WHO IS GOING TO GET THE SIXTH SEED IN THE EAST?
Boston’s spot is set but their first-round playoff opponent is still very much in the air.
The Heat and Pacers played the first of their two remaining head-to-head matchups Monday with Miami cruising to a 114-92 win and taking sole possession of the No. 4 seed. Indiana sits a half-game ahead of the No. 6 Sixers, who are the most likely first-round opponent for Boston. Appropriately, Philadelphia had a nearly 76 percent chance of meeting Boston, based on projections by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.
But those numbers could shift, especially if Pacers can't top the Heat in their second meeting. A look at each team’s remaining schedule:
MIAMI: 8/12 vs. OKC, 8/14 vs. IND
INDIANA: 8/12 vs. HOU, 8/14 vs MIA
PHILADELPHIA: 8/11 vs. PHX, 8/12 vs. TOR, 8/14 vs HOU
Remember, some of those matchups might look more daunting than they really are if some of the NBA’s top seeds downshift over the final week of seeding games.
While the conversation surrounding the Celtics’ first-round opponent has often centered on who might be the easier out — with Philadelphia’s recent injury woes seemingly making the Sixers a more agreeable draw — remember, too, that there could be value in the 4-5 winner being able to push one of the top seeds. It might be in Boston’s best interest if Milwaukee had to play a team like, say, the Heat in Round 2 given their regular-season struggles against them.
WHAT ELSE CAN BOSTON TAKE FROM ITS FINAL TWO GAMES?
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he will use the final two seeding games in order to ensure his team’s conditioning is adequate given the minimum three-day break the team will endure between Thursday’s matinee finale and the potential start of the playoffs next Monday. Still, we’d be surprised if Boston’s key rotation players log heavy minutes in Thursday’s game against the Wizards.
A few things that Boston can still gather from these two games:
1) More minutes for the starting 5: A group that played only 188 minutes during the regular season can continue to build necessary continuity at the start and end of halves. With Kemba Walker’s minute restriction set to lift in the postseason, it will allow Boston’s core players to share the floor even more frequently and Stevens can continue to nail down his primary rotations. Daniel Theis did land on the injury report for the Memphis game but he’s probable with right foot soreness. And even if he can’t go it could given Stevens a better chance to experiment with his bigs including …
2) Is it Timelord’s time? Second-year big man Robert Williams has put together consecutive quality outings against Toronto and Orlando. He’ll get two more games to build Stevens’ trust as a potential option off the bench. Kudos, too, to Enes Kanter, who was one of the more impactful players early in Boston's seeding games while the team shook rust, and has dealt with a reduced workload in recent games.
The Celtics essentially know what they’ve got in Kanter and Stevens seems to be using these games to figure out what he’s got with Williams. The split of postseason playing time for those players could be dictated by matchups. But Williams needs to continue to put his best foot forward this week to ensure Stevens is willing to lean on him in big-game situations.
3) Another audition for rookies: The Celtics played some of their best minutes of scrimmage play with Grant Williams at small-ball center but he’s struggled to consistently make perimeter shots in the seeding games and was a DNP against Orlando. We’re not ready to say that he’s out of the rotation — we can see Stevens leaning on him as much as Williams or Kanter in certain matchups — but as Semi Ojeleye fires away and makes 42.9 percent of his 3s over the past six games, the veteran is making a case to be that stout body that Stevens leans on when he needs a little extra muscle on the court.
Romeo Langford should also get another chance this week to show he’ll be ready to provide solid wing defense if called upon during the postseason. Every minute in a real game is an opportunity for Boston’s youngest players to make an impression and all of them should be motivated for the uptick they’ll see this week. Any floor time they get starting next week should almost certainly be in much small doses.
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