The top seed in the East may not be the prize Boston wants

You may have noticed the Boston Celtics are in realistic contention for the top seed in the East.

I say that because you are reading this, and if you are reading this, well, you get the idea. Celtics fans are justifiably excited with the team's performance - down this final stretch, this season, and in the overall rebuild - and they should be. The team is putting forward what many have called the model rebuild, and while it's tempting to point out the failures in the draft, the luck of having a Billy King/Mikhail Prokhorov (it just occurred to me his first name is McHale, more or less, which explains a lot) to hand you the tools you need to make it happen, and countless other blips - but why bother? Every rebuild has to navigate new and different terrain with its own contexts, and even accounting for the things beyond Danny Ainge's control, this rebuild has been very well done.

There are evidence-based reports coming from reputable sources suggesting the club is on par with the defending champs in terms of the odds of winning a title, and while dwarfed by the odds of the monsters coming out of the West, that ought to mean something, even if it means less than some of us are taking that as. The future looks rosy, with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that looks like it will make the draft is the best way to build a contender. In case that's not clear, having a lot of draft picks should help - a LOT. And Boston looks like a team that will make a deep run in the playoffs after turning around a total tear-down - missing the playoffs only once in the four year span it occurred in, to boot - while chasing the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

It might not be the popular line of thinking at the moment, but the top seed might not be the prize Boston wants.

I can hear you now. "What is this guy talking about?!? Is he crazy?"; let me assure you, I am not. Or so I like to think anyway, but I do have a point. Seeding is a major issue for Boston, and arguably, most teams in the league gunning for a deep run. Matchups matter, and can change the complexion of playoff success or failure significantly. Teams that are much worse on paper sometimes present an outsized challenge in practice - due to roster composition, coaching, style of play - even psychology can come into play. Do we really think an Oklahoma City Thunder - Golden State Warriors matchup would be competitive if not for the narrative driving that series?

Some teams, like the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, have enough talent that they can choose to pay less attention to seeding, or an established enough system (like the San Antonio Spurs) that rest matters more than who they will end up playing. Boston, however, is NOT one of those clubs - not yet, anyways. The Celtics need to pay close attention to who they will likely face, and may need to consider resting their starters down the stretch in the hopes of dropping a game or three if it means the difference between a grueling path to the finals and a cakewalk. What in the actual ___ am I talking about, you ask? Well, let's take a quick look at the standings:

As the top image suggests, the Celts have a very good path to the finals if the season ended today. Given how the seeding works - the highest seed faces the lowest in the first round, and the next best the next worse (1–8, 2–7, 3–6, and 4–5), and so on. The winners advance to the conference semifinals, with a series between the 1–8 and 4–5 winners, and a series between the 2–7 and 3–6 winners. If the season ended today, the Celts would face the Indiana Pacers, and then the winner of Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. While Washington has been something of a thorn in the side of the Celts this season, it is starting to feel like the club has largely figured the Wizards out.

Compare this to what Boston would be facing if it were in the top seed right now - they would start out against the Miami Heat, who played close games against the Celtics when they were close to their worst this season, and have since been one of the best teams in the league, only to face the winner of the Atlanta Hawks - Toronto Raptors series. The former team bounced Boston from the playoffs last year, and blew out the team in one of their two matches so far, while the latter has owned the Celts in the regular season, winning three of the team's four matches this year.

Quite a lot can change in the ten or so games teams have left in the season. And regular season success may not automatically translate into postseason wins, either. The game, as you have probably heard a hundred times this week alone, slows down, and star power matters more. Rotations shorten, fatigue and injuries screw up the best laid plans, and so much more happens (flailing legs, anyone?) can change the entire course of a series. But depending on how things shake out, landing that top seed could conceivably become a less-than-optimal seeding scenario, a questionable "prize" for a team who's primary goal is Banner 18, to say the least.

Hey, at least we'd have home court, though...right?

For more articles about the NBA Playoffs on CelticsLife, click here. For more by Justin, click here.

Check out this week's mailbag podcast in the player above for an in-depth discussion of playoff seeding, too.

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