Can the Boston Celtics catch the Toronto Raptors for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference?
As you digest Friday’s schedule release, which mapped out the eight games that all 22 teams will play when the NBA restarts in Orlando next month, the lingering question is whether Boston has any chance to shimmy up the East standings before the playoffs begin.
The schedule-makers have at least given the Celtics a chance to climb, all while secure that they won’t fall lower than the No. 3 spot.
Boston (43-21) will enter the restart three games back of Toronto (46-18) with a potentially pivotal head-to-head matchup looming on August 7. The Celtics’ will be challenged out of the gates in seeding games — drawing the East-leading Bucks in their opener, playing a Portland team that will be fighting for its playoff lives in Game 2, and trying to fend off the nearby Heat in Game 3.
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But the rest of the schedule, outside of the Toronto game, is especially agreeable and will give Boston a chance to build some momentum before the playoffs arrive.
Toronto, meanwhile, has one of the more challenging slates. Not only do the Raptors play the Heat and Bucks, but there are games against Philadelphia, Denver, and the West-leading Lakers.
Making up three games over an eight-game schedule will be no easy chore for Boston. Losing that Toronto game would almost surely lock up the No. 2 spot for the Raptors. Think of it this way: Even if Toronto goes a meager 3-5 during its eight-game schedule, Boston would have to go 6-2 AND win the head-to-head matchup to jump in front of the Raptors.
It means Boston has to come flying out of the gates without much of the rust that teams will undoubtedly exhibit. But if Boston plays to its potential, it can at least make the Raptors sweat a bit.
Before the season paused, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index favored the Celtics in 10 of their next 11 games. The only projected loss was a trip to Toronto. Playing on a neutral court could be a benefit to Boston considering their struggles north of the border in recent years.
Just how hard should Boston push for that No. 2 seed? That might ultimately hinge on the Celtics' preferred first-round matchup. If the Sixers linger in the No. 6 spot, the 3-6 matchup becomes a bit more of a challenge than a top seed might prefer in Round 1 because of Philadelphia’s talent and potential. Again, playing on a neutral site negates the usual homecourt advantage a 2 seed might enjoy in Round 2, so it might not be worth emptying the tank. It doesn’t matter who is the 2 seed if Boston and Toronto both win their first-round matchups and draw each other in Round 2.
Still, it’s something to keep an eye on.
If the Celtics struggle, it’s prudent to remember that they still have work to do to lock up the 3 seed. Miami enters the restart 2.5 games back of Boston, but three in the loss column due to an extra game played. Say the Celtics go 4-4, Miami would have to go 7-1 to leapfrog based on the extra loss. Yet again, a head-to-head matchup looms big in that quest.
The motivation for the Heat in any pursuit of the 3 seed would be avoiding a team like Philly if they were to shimmy up to No. 5. Only two games separate the 4-6 spots with the Heat, 76ers, and Pacers.
One Miami writer parsed strength of schedule by looking at how teams fared against only the 22 teams competing in Orlando. Toronto ended up with the second most difficult schedule, behind only Denver. Miami had the fourth-hardest schedule.
Boston slotted 18th on that list of toughest schedules.
That we’re even contemplating how the standings might shake out is the best sign of all that basketball is truly back. It won’t be the same and it’s impossible to know how teams will respond in such a unique environment but it’s going to be fascinating to watch how the standings shake out.