Celtics

NBA playoff picture: Celtics' quest for No. 2 seed now in serious jeopardy

NBA playoff picture: Celtics' quest for No. 2 seed now in serious jeopardy

What a difference a week makes.

At this time seven days ago, the Boston Celtics were 0.5 games behind the No. 2 seed Raptors in the NBA's Eastern Conference and seemingly poised to pass Toronto, which had lost three straight.

Fast forward to Monday morning, where the Celtics find themselves a full three games behind the Raptors and just 1.5 games up on No. 4 seed Miami Heat with 19 games remaining.

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East Standings (as of March 9)

1. Milwaukee Bucks, 53-11
2. Toronto Raptors, 45-18 (7.5 games back)
3. Boston Celtics, 42-21 (10.5 GB)
4. Miami Heat, 41-23, (12 GB)
5. Indiana Pacers, 39-25 (14 GB)
6. Philadelphia 76ers, 38-26 (15 GB)
7. Brooklyn Nets, 29-34 (23.5 GB)
8. Orlando Magic, 29-35 (24 GB)

Current East Playoff Matchups

Bucks-Magic
Raptors-Nets
Celtics-76ers
Heat-Pacers

If the season ended Monday, the Celtics would draw a first-round playoff matchup with the 76ers, who have beaten Boston three out of four times this season.

Needless to say, the No. 7 seed Nets -- who are without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and just fired head coach Kenny Atkinson -- would be a more favorable draw.

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But the Celtics have their work cut out for them if they want to avoid Philly. Here are the next three games for Boston, Toronto and Miami:

Celtics: at Indiana, at Milwaukee, vs. Washington
Raptors: at Utah, vs. Detroit, vs. Golden State
Heat: vs. Charlotte, vs. New York, vs. Chicago

The Celtics will need to beat a tough Pacers team and the juggernaut Bucks to snap out of their funk. If they lose both? It's very possible the Heat could overtake them for the No. 4 seed by week's end with three home games against cupcake opponents ahead.

The Raptors, meanwhile, have won three in a row and don't have the hardest schedule in front of them, either.

That's all to say the C's need to step up in a big way this week against Indiana and Milwaukee to avoid sliding further in the East playoff race.

We'll end on an optimistic note, though: The sportsbooks still view Boston as a serious title contender. Westgate Superbook's latest odds peg the Celtics at 20/1 to win the 2020 NBA championship, tied with the Raptors for second-best in the East.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Pacers-Celtics, which begins Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

2020 NBA Restart: How would Celtics fare in playoff series vs. Heat?

2020 NBA Restart: How would Celtics fare in playoff series vs. Heat?

Miami is always a tough opponent come playoff time, but the Boston Celtics have every reason to feel confident they would prevail if the two were to meet in the playoffs in Orlando. 

In their two regular season matchups, the Celtics won both by an average of 13.5 points. 

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Making the victories even more impressive was Boston playing without some top players, as Marcus Smart (illness) missed the Celtics’ 112-93 win at the TD Garden on Dec. 4 while Jayson Tatum (groin) and Enes Kanter (hip) were both sidelined for the rematch, a 109-101 Celtics win, in Miami on Jan. 28. 

In both wins, Jaylen Brown was the one player the Heat had no answer for containing. After dropping a season-high 31 points on Miami in the first matchup, Brown was just as dominant in the second meeting when he scored 25 points, only to be outshined by Gordon Hayward’s 29. 

For the Celtics, both wins came down to their ability to force Miami into the Jimmy Butler show while limiting the overall impact of those around him.

But the Heat team Boston could see in the playoffs will be better than the squad that the C's faced earlier in the season. Miami has been a notoriously bad three-point shooting team for years. But after the All-Star break, the Heat averaged 15.5 made threes per game, which was fifth-best in the league. And their 40.8 percent shooting on threes after the break was tops in the league. 

The Celtics' starting five has been strong all season, and will look to continue along that path if the two meet up in the playoffs.

For Miami to pull off the upset, look for the Heat’s bench to play a major role. Miami’s second unit averages 41.3 points per game which ranks seventh in the NBA. They would face a Boston squad that’s allowing a league-low 33.6 bench points per game. Part of that strong defense after the break has been Boston’s board work. After the break, they have a rebounding percentage of .510 which ranks ninth in the league, while the Heat’s .496 rebounding percentage ranks 20th. 

PREDICTIONS FOR CELTICS-HEAT PLAYOFF SERIES

A. Sherrod Blakely: Miami is a better team now than it was during either of Boston’s two regular season wins. But Jayson Tatum’s meteoric rise combined with a healthy Kemba Walker will be too much for the Jimmy Butler-led Heat.

Prediction: Celtics in 5 games

Chris Forsberg: The Heat look a little different than the team Boston toppled twice in the regular season and added veteran, playoff-tested experience in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. While Jimmy Butler has a penchant for the big stage, he wasn’t able to get a loaded Philly roster out of the second round a year ago.

The task will be even more difficult here and Miami’s younger players will be challenged to maintain their regular-season production. If healthy, the Celtics have more pure talent overall and match up well against Miami’s small-ball ways.

Prediction: Celtics in 5 games

DJ Bean: We've seen Jimmy Butler's numbers drop in the postseason before, and while Bam Adebayo's a stud, they'd have the same problem virtually every team in the East will have: they just don't have the sheer number of stars Boston does. 

Prediction: Celtics in 5 or 6 games

Kara Lawson writes heartfelt tribute to Celtics after landing Duke job

Kara Lawson writes heartfelt tribute to Celtics after landing Duke job

Kara Lawson was only on the Celtics' coaching staff for one season, but it was clearly a special experience both for her and the team.

On Sunday, C's head coach Brad Stevens and some of the Celtics players both congratulated Lawson on her new job as head coach of the women's basketball team at Duke and described how much of an impact she made in her limited time in Boston.

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Marcus Smart was effusive in his praise for the former Olympic gold medalist, saying, "she became more than just my shooting coach, she became a longtime friend and somebody I know I can talk to if I ever need advice.”

On Wednesday morning, it was Lawson's turn to express her appreciation for the Celtics in an emotional social media post, writing, "These men have changed my life. I have loved my time with the Boston Celtics. Our players are authentic, intelligent, creative and passionate men. They motivated me every day to be my best for them."

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It’s been an emotional few days for me. And, while I couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity in front of me at Duke University, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the team I’m leaving behind. These men have changed my life. I have loved my time with the Boston Celtics. Our players are authentic, intelligent, creative and passionate men. They motivated me every day to be my best for them. They surprised me last night by all wearing @DukeWBB T-shirts for an incredible show of support before I head to Durham. I cried. They would probably laugh and tell you I’ve cried a lot these last few days but I will tell you having relationships with players that move you to those kinds of emotions is the most meaningful pursuit one can have as a coach. I love them and I will miss them.

A post shared by Kara Lawson (@20karalawson) on

Seeing the entire C's contingent decked out in Duke women's basketball shirts makes you realize the genuine affection and appreciation the players built for Lawson in such a short time — and it's no surprise that Jayson Tatum is front and center in the picture as Lawson heads to Durham.

Enes Kanter, always a consistent presence on social media, summed up the photo with a perfect one-word caption: FAMILY.

With Lawson leaving the Orlando bubble, the Celtics are replacing her on the traveling coaching staff with Brandon Bailey, who is also in his first season as a Celtics assistant.