Is the No. 2 seed in reach for restart Celtics?

Is the No. 2 seed in reach for restart Celtics?

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.

WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

Only in the NBA bubble could two budding stars battle on the court one moment then ham it up in the media room the next.

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was speaking to reporters via video conference Tuesday night after Boston's 112-106 loss to Miami when Heat big man Bam Adebayo strode into the room for his own interview session.

Adebayo wasn't in a waiting mood, though, so he tried to distract Tatum with a few incredulous looks from the corner.

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Here's the entertaining scene, as captured by ESPN's Rachel Nichols in Orlando:

Props to Tatum for maintaining his focus as Adebayo tried to run interference. The two young stars then shared a playful exchange in which Tatum appeared to chide Adebayo for benefiting from some whistles. (The Heat big man scored 11 of his 21 points on free throws thanks to 18 free throw attempts, a game high.)

"You shot free throws like you won MVP or something," Tatum appeared to tell Adebayo.

Their banter was all in good nature: Tatum and Adebayo were teammates in the 2016 McDonald's All-American Game and entered the 2017 NBA Draft together, so they go way back. But Tatum still may have had a bitter taste in his mouth after picking up five fouls and getting hit with a technical in Tuesday's loss.

Both players are also in the running for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award amid career seasons; Adebayo is averaging a double-double (16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds) with 1.3 blocks per game for Miami, while Tatum is racking up 23.4 points and seven rebounds per game as he blossoms into an NBA star.

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NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

We could sit here and scream about how poor Boston’s defense has been inside the bubble. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 117.9 after their first three seeding games, and only one team has a worse mark (the helter-skelter Sixers).

We could lament Boston’s lethargy after the team whiffed Tuesday with a chance to essentially lock up the No. 3 seed while playing a Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat team that was on the second night of a back-to-back.

Boston hasn’t played with any sort of consistent energy in its three games, falling behind early against Milwaukee, coughing up a big lead against Portland, and trying to play catchup all night against Miami.

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But here’s one thought we couldn’t shake while watching Tuesday’s game: What a luxury it is for Miami to have a rookie like Tyler Herro on their bench. Herro chipped in 11 points over 22 minutes during the Heat’s 112-106 triumph.

With Marcus Smart in foul trouble — so much so that he fouled out late in the third quarter — Boston lacked a bench boost. Take away Enes Kanter’s 10 points and the Celtics’ reserve trio of Grant Williams, Brad Wanamaker, and Smart combined for 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting.

At one point during the second half, Celtics coach Brad Stevens dispatched Romeo Langford for his first seeding-game minutes but Langford turned in a scoreless 3 minutes, 44 seconds, in which he mostly blended into the scenery.

Herro, of course, went one spot ahead of Langford in the 2019 draft. There had been a buzz before draft night that the Celtics were fond of Herro and that he had impressed the team with his shooting in one of his workouts. There might have even been a few groans inside the Auerbach Center when Miami snagged the Kentucky product at No. 13.

The Celtics ultimately took Langford, who has no shortage of potential and might eventually be a better pro. But his rookie season got off to a slow start as he healed from hand surgery and then he dealt with a bunch of minor maladies that even limited how much floor time he got with the Maine Red Claws of the G-League.

Herro has now appeared in 50 games for Miami while shooting a robust 39 percent beyond the 3-point arc on 5.4 attempts per game. He wasn’t even Miami’s best rookie this season — that distinction goes to Kendrick Nunn — but Herro won Erik Spoelstra’s confidence and is now a key rotation piece while logging 26.9 minutes per game.

On Tuesday, Miami’s four-man bench combined for 43 points on 31 shots while each player logged at least 21 minutes of floor time. For Boston, Semi Ojeleye missed five of his six shots, including multiple open 3s. Smart finished 0-for-5 shooting.

Make no mistake, Boston will lean heavy on its core players when the playoffs arrive. When Kemba Walker is off his minute restriction, and combined with a hefty dose of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward, that might leave only a small handful of minutes for reserves not named Smart.

Still, games like Tuesday night show how important it is to have players that can take the baton, even if it’s only on rare nights. None of Boston’s younger players have shown enough this year to earn Stevens’ unwavering trust.

Again, guys like Grant Williams and Langford could have bright futures. Maybe Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, too. That’s especially important for Boston because of how much money they have tied up long term in their core players.

But the fact of that matter is that, right now, none of Boston’s rookies have seized their opportunity, nor has 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams, who was only inserted late in Tuesday’s game to defend an inbounds attempt with his length and bounce.

Those players could get another chance to show what they’ve got on Wednesday when Boston plays a back-to-back against the Nets. With Walker set to rest his knee and Stevens unlikely to go too heavy on starter minutes in the team’s first (and only) bubble double, younger players will need to take advantage of whatever minutes come their way.

Herro won’t be the difference between a first-round upset and a first-round exit for Miami. But the Heat are well-positioned moving into the future because of the progress their youngest players made this season. It’s critical teams develop talent if they are going to commit most of their money to their top stars.

The Celtics are left waiting for their youngest players to show they are ready.

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