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Irish Coffee: How will this strange Celtics trip end?

03.20.12 at 4:32 pm ET

The NBA lockout ended. Rajon Rondo nearly got traded for Chris Paul during a frenzied training camp. Paul Pierce has played his way into shape, Kevin Garnett has enjoyed a vintage Kevin Garnett season and Ray Allen is shooting better than ever because he’s wearing bigger shoes.

And that’s not all. Jermaine O’Neal played all of 25 games. Heart problems ended both Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox‘s seasons. Mickael Pietrus came on board, guaranteeing an NBA title. The Celtics lost five straight games — twice. They’ve also had two separate 10-game stretches where they’ve won nine and eight games.

Now, with one third left of this long, strange trip that has been the Celtics regular season, they sit in the Eastern Conference’s seventh playoff spot. Trailing the Bulls (38-10) and Heat (33-11) by a respective 12.5 and 9.5 games with 21 games left, the Celtics (24-21) can forget about catching either for the No. 1 or 2 seed.

Catching the Magic (29-18), owners of a four-game lead on the C’€™s for the No. 3 seed, isn’€™t inconceivable, but more likely the Celtics will vie with the 76ers (26-20), Pacers (25-18) and Hawks (26-20) for the No. 4 seed. All are within 1.5 games of each other. The Knicks (21-24) and Bucks (20-24) are battling for the final playoff spot.

Three division winners and the conference’€™s next best team are seeded 1-4 based on records, so the Atlantic Division-leading Sixers are slotted fourth, even though the Pacers own a better record. The remaining teams are ranked 5-8 based on record, but division winners are not guaranteed a home series. So, should a lower seed own the better record, they’€™d still play four road contests in a seven-game series — negating the seeding advantage.

For example, should the Celtics win the division but have a worse record than the Pacers, they’€™d still be playing the first two games of their playoff series on the road. With all that said, let’€™s see who has the best shot of getting those three and four seeds based on how the strength of their remaining schedules.

No. 3: Orlando Magic (29-18)

  • Home games remaining: 9
  • Road games remaining: 10
  • Games vs. playoff teams: 10
  • Record vs. playoff teams: 10-15

No. 4: Philadelphia 76ers (26-20)

  • Home games remaining: 8
  • Road games remaining: 12
  • Games vs. playoff teams: 10
  • Record vs. playoff teams: 8-15

No. 5: Indiana Pacers (25-18)

  • Home games remaining: 14
  • Road games remaining: 9
  • Games vs. playoff teams: 10
  • Record vs. playoff teams: 8-15

No. 6: Atlanta Hawks (26-20)

  • Home games remaining: 13
  • Road games remaining: 7
  • Games vs. playoff teams: 9
  • Record vs. playoff teams: 7-16

No. 7: BOSTON CELTICS (24-21)

  • Home games remaining: 9
  • Road games remaining: 12
  • Games vs. playoff teams: 12
  • Record vs. playoff teams: 10-14

No. 8: Knicks (21-24)

  • Home games remaining: 10
  • Road games remaining: 11
  • Games vs. playoff teams: 11
  • Record vs. playoff teams: 7-15

No. 9: Milwaukee Bucks (20-24)

  • Home games remaining: 13
  • Road games remaining: 9
  • Games vs. playoff teams: 13
  • Record vs. playoff teams: 8-17

Ten things to note here as the Celtics enter the final third of the regular season:

1. The Magic and Pacers clearly have the best shot at the No. 3 seed, and Orlando has a four-game lead in the win column over Indiana. Catching either is a long shot.

2. The Pacers have a ton of home games left, so chances are they’€™ll get the fifth seed and host a playoff series against the Atlantic Division champion in the No. 4 spot.

3. The 76ers play their final five games and nine of their last 11 on the road.

4. The Celtics and 76ers have fairly comparable schedules remaining. They face each other twice, in Philadelphia on Friday and in Boston on April 8. Since the Sixers won the first matchup, the Cs would have to win the final two in order to own the tiebreaker.

5. The C’€™s own the best record against playoff teams among this group.

6. The Hawks play most of their games at home and also face the least number of playoff-bound squads.

7. However, the Hawks are also the Hawks.

8. Further, the Hawks, Knicks and Bucks all have awful records against playoff-bound teams, so even if the Celtics fail to catch Philly for the division crown they should still have a good shot at the No. 6 seed — and thus avoiding the Bulls or Heat in Round 1.

9. Unless the Celtics can capture the No. 3 seed or both win the division and eclipse the Pacers for the fourth-best record, they won’€™t own homecourt advantage for any series.

10. The most realistic best-case scenario for the Celtics: Win the division (and thus the No. 4 seed) and play the Magic or Pacers in Round 1 with a chance to face the Bulls in Round 2. As the C’€™s learned last year, the Heat are the worse matchup, so avoiding Miami until a potential Eastern Conference finals would be the ideal road.

(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’€™s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)

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