Breaking down the Celtics playoff prospects - why home court advantage has become likely

Jeff Green's game winner has the Celtics thinking home court
One month. That's how long the Celtics have been the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Ever since their blowout victory over the Lakers on February 7th, the C's have never slipped behind the 8th seeded Bucks, and have never jumped the trio of teams directly in front of them. However - their month long reign as the 7th seed could come to end on Friday night, as a win over the Hawks would push Boston over Atlanta (tiebreaker) into 6th place (and possibly 5th if Utah beats Chicago).

Just how important is seeding? Well for much of the regular season, not very. But with just 22 games remaining on the schedule, teams certainly begin to peak at the standings to see where they could fall. For the Celtics, there are really two questions; 1. What is their most likely playoff position? And 2. What is their ideal playoff position?

Let's start with #1.

Courtesy of their 16 game winning streak, the Miami Heat have moved 12.5 games up on the Celtics, certainly putting them well out of reach. The C's also face long odds of catching either the Knicks (5 games up) for the division crown, or the Central leading Pacers (4.5 games up). John Hollinger's 'playoff odds calculator' does as good a job as any playoff predictor in estimating how many games a team will win based on their remaining schedule, and how good they have played to this point in the season. As of now, Hollinger's system has the Pacers finishing 52-30, and the Knicks 50-32. If those estimations are correct, the Celts would have to go 19-3 from here on out to catch Indy, and 17-5 to catch the Knicks. Possible? I guess. Probable? Nope. So for the sake of realism, let's say that the Celtics will finish somewhere between 4-8 in the East. Let's compare their schedule from here on out, to the teams they're going against.

Current 4-seed - Brooklyn Nets (35-26 record, 1.5 games ahead of Boston)

21 games remaining: 8 home, 13 away; 8 against teams over .500, 13 against teams under .500

Notes: Brooklyn faces a weak overall slate of games, but a daunting road schedule. The Nets have a brutal 8 game road trip later this month which sees them play games in all four time zones. Brooklyn has actually been good on the road this season (15-13), but part of their road success could be that they've yet to depart on a true 'road trip' this season, never playing more than 4 games in a row away from home. The one remaining game between Boston and the Nets is April 10th in Boston, and could go a long way in deciding seeding.

Current 5-seed - Atlanta Hawks (34-26, 1 game ahead of Boston)

22 games remaining: 12 home, 10 away; 13 against teams over .500, 9 against teams under .500

Notes: Atlanta is the opposite of Brooklyn, playing a lot of games at home, but against stronger teams. However while the Hawks only have 10 remaining road games, 8 of them are against playoff teams. As mentioned above, the C's could pass Atlanta as soon as Friday night if they can beat them at the Garden, and the two teams play again on March 29th in Boston.

Current 6-seed - Chicago Bulls (34-27, 0.5 games ahead of Boston)

21 games remaining: 10 home, 11 away; 9 against teams over .500, 12 against teams under .500

The ultimate playoff wild card
Notes: Obviously Derrick Rose's return is the ultimate wild card as we do not know when (or if) he'll return, nor how effective he'll be. But right now, Chicago looks exhausted. Having survived nearly an entire season without their one true playmaker, they've run out of steam, losing 10 of their past 16 games. Their schedule is neutral from here on out, but without Rose they seem destined to continue their poor play.

Current 7-seed - Boston Celtics (33-27)

22 games remaining: 11 home, 11 away; 10 against teams over .500, 12 against teams under .500

Notes: Much like Chicago, the Celtics have a very balanced schedule from here on out. While they still have 7 games remaining against elite opposition (.600+ winning percentage), they also have a staggering 11 games remaining against bad clubs (sub .400 winning percentage). Most important of all, unlike all of the above teams, the Celtics appear to be peaking, winning 13 of their past 17 games.

Current 8-seed - Milwaukee Bucks (30-29, 2.5 games behind the Celtics)

23 games remaining: 11 home, 12 away; 12 against teams over .500, 11 against teams under .500

Notes: Another team with balanced home/road, good/bad splits, in my opinion the Bucks are actually the 2nd most dangerous team in this group. While I doubt they catch the C's, they are a unique team in that they have two dynamic playmaking guards (Ellis, Jennings), a shot blocking big man (Larry Sanders), and a deep group of three point shooters (Redick, Mike Dunleavy, Ilyasova). If I'm New York or Indiana the list of teams I want to avoid in round 1 is: 1. Boston, 2. Milwaukee, 3. ? (Unless D-Rose comes back and looks good).

After looking at this list, isn't your confidence growing that the Celtics will grab the fourth seed, and home court in the first round? Well if so - Hollinger's odds agree, currently pegging the C's for a 46-36 record (meaning a 13-9 finish), and the 4th spot. Now on to part two of this question - where should the Celtics want to land?

In years past the Celtics have turned a blind eye to playoff seeding, declaring that where they ended up didn't matter nearly as much as their level of health when they got there. But things appear to be a bit different this year as Celtics coach Doc Rivers went on the record yesterday, saying that where they end up does matter - at least a little.

It’s definitely more important to be right,” he said. “If you’re injured and not right then it doesn’t matter what seed you are. You’re going home soon.

“But obviously if you can get home court you want it,” said Rivers. “I know we’re close somehow. But at the end of the day we have to take care of our own business. We have to keep playing better and getting better. Then all of that other stuff will take care of itself.

Last year the Celtics cared so little about gaining home court against Atlanta in round 1, that with the teams tied in the standings and just 3 games remaining in the regular season, Rivers benched Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo for a game in Atlanta. The Hawks won, and claimed home court. While this may say more about the Celtics lack of respect for Atlanta than anything else, it's still interesting to see Doc go on the record about home court.

It all comes down to when you want to play this guy
It appears the Celts have a desire to climb up to the 4 spot, and they certainly are playing well enough to do so - but are they better off in either the 6th or 7th position? The argument really comes down to whether you'd rather play Miami earlier (round 2) or later (round 3). Personally, I'd rather take my chances in the Eastern Conference Finals, as the deeper a playoff run goes, the more variability comes into play (injuries mainly), and variability always provides an advantage to the underdog (another example is bad weather in football). With that said, while ideally I'd prefer to wait for Miami, I certainly understand the teams goal of home court advantage. It would allow for a potentially easier 1st round, and also gives the Celtics a tangible goal to shoot for these final 22 games. If the goal was simply 'get to the playoffs and be healthy' that could open the door for complacency down the stretch. But if the goal is to leap frog three teams ahead of you - that motor is ensured to stay running.

Another reason to be rooting for home court? The story. When Rondo went down on January 25th, the Celtics were 20-23, 8th place in the East, and left for dead. They were 5 games behind Atlanta, 6 behind Brooklyn, and 6.5 behind Chicago. Now - all three teams are peaking at the Celtics in their rear view mirror. And objects in your mirror may be closer than they seem.

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