The Celtics got a welcome break on Tuesday when the Heat were run out of Cleveland by the Cavaliers. It was a classic LeBron-fraude game as the would-be King had his entourage stopped by security and then skipped the pregame introductions, claiming he was still on his throne, as it were.
More importantly from the Celtics’ perspective, the Heat’s loss to the team with the worst record in the league knocked them back a step in their fight for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics remain two games behind the Bulls for the top spot with nine games left and a showdown looming in Chicago a week from Thursday. It’s not impossible for them to reclaim the top spot, but their more immediate problem is holding off the Heat for second place.
In addition to getting homecourt in the second round, the second seed carries with it the likelihood of a first round matchup with the reeling Knicks, while the third seed will probably draw the surging Sixers. Just how different have these two teams played over the last two months?
Since acquiring Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups from the Nuggets, the Knicks have gone 8-12 and had lost six in a row and nine of their last 10 before escaping with an overtime win over Orlando on Monday.
New York’s main issue is its defense, which went from acceptably bad to downright awful since the trade. Among their issues are a tendency to foul too much and an inability to guard the mid-range game.
They also lack size in the middle — with Ronny Turiaf out they have been reduced to starting either Shawne or Shelden Williams at center — and depth everywhere else. Offensively, they have gone from a team that lived on high pick-and-rolls with Amar’e Stoudemire to one that plays through Anthony.
Along the way, they have lost twice against the Cavs, Bucks and Pacers and also dropped games to the Bobcats and Pistons. And you thought the Celtics’ transition was difficult.
Since late January, the 76ers have gone 21-11 and recorded wins over the Spurs, Celtics and Bulls. They are a team that plays defense first and while they’re not at the Celtics level, they are in the top 10 in efficiency, field goal percentage defense and rebounding.
After years of waiting for Andre Iguodala to become something that he is not, they seem to have finally accepted his limitations as go-to-scorer and embraced what he does well. Elton Brand has had an underrated comeback seasons and Jrue Holiday has had a breakthrough season at the point. Additionally, the Sixers have a top-notch bench with Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young leading the way.
No matter who they draw in the first round, the Celtics will be heavy favorites and how they perform in the playoffs will be much more about them than their opponent. Still, getting the second seed has its obvious advantages. The question for the Celtics and coach Doc Rivers, is how hard will he work his core players to get it?
The Celtics just went through a stretch of 12 games in 19 days and went 5-7 while showing some of the obvious signs of schedule fatigue. It won’t get any easier with the final nine games crammed into the last two weeks of the regular season and three sets of back-to-backs remaining.