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Should the Celtics play for seeding?

03.30.12 at 12:39 am ET
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Will the Celtics choose rest over seeding down the stretch? (AP)

It has taken them 50 games and more than three quarters of the season, but the Celtics and Philadelphia are tied atop the Atlantic Division with identical 28-22 records. In order to catch the Sixers, who own the tiebreaker, the Celtics had to go 13-5 since the All-Star break. Philly has been a .500 team at 8-8 over that same span.

There’s no doubt that the Celtics have hit their stride since coach Doc Rivers moved Kevin Garnett to center and shortened his rotation, but there is some doubt as to whether they can sustain that pace during a brutal final month of the season.

Nine of their final 16 games are on the road, and 13 of those are against playoff teams, or teams still in contention for a playoff spot (Minnesota and Milwaukee). They play the Heat three times and the Hawks twice, in addition to the Spurs, Magic, Sixers and the Bulls and Pacers on the road. There are four sets of back-to-backs and one three-in-three.

The good news for that three games in three-night stretch is they come against Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte. The bad news is they are all on the road.

Rivers wanted to push his team to play for a better seed last season, but after an uneven March he changed direction and settled for the third seed after Miami and Chicago blew by them in the standings. This season is a little more unsettled.

“At the end of the day if it comes down to seeding or health, I’m going to choose health,” Rivers said before the Celtics played Utah on Wednesday. “You would rather have a better seed, but you can go wherever you want, if you’re not healthy it’s not going to matter, especially with us. It’s an interesting thing.” 

Winning the division would give the Celtics the fourth seed and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The opponent would likely be Indiana, whose size has been a problem. The Pacers won the first two meetings handily, but the Celtics earned a 99-84 win in late January when they were in the midst of a mini-turnaround.

If they were able to get by the Pacers — no sure thing — they would likely play the Bulls, another team that has been a matchup nightmare. The Celtics were able to win the last meeting behind a Rajon Rondo triple-double (not to mention the absence of Derrick Rose), but Chicago has won four of the last five meetings and none of those games have been particularly close.

Whoever doesn’t win the division is likely to get the seventh seed, which would likely mean a first round series with the Heat. There’s also a chance that either Philly or Boston could catch the Hawks for the sixth seed. You can make the argument that the Celtics matchup better with Miami than Chicago, but the Heat have won six of the last seven games, including last year’s playoff series.

However you look at it, trying to position yourself for a matchup is a fool’s game. There are simply too many variables beyond your control.

What Rivers can try to control is rest and minutes for his team and he said there’s a chance he would follow the blueprint that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has used over the last few years and rest some of his starters in a handful of the back-to-backs. Popovich makes no excuses for the strategy and even went so far as to sit Tim Duncan recently with the designation: DNP-Old.

What he’s really talking about is sitting Garnett, and that’s not always an easy thing to do.

“The problem, without saying a name, is one of the guys that you would suggest sitting, it’s not fun to get him to do that,” Rivers said. “The conversation is no fun. Maybe he’ll see that and maybe he won’t.”

The other problem, in so much as it’s a problem, is that the other key veterans are also aware of what’s at stake and they are a prideful bunch.

“You know I know everything,” Paul Pierce said. “I follow it religiously. I’m always checking the scores. Even during the games, in the middle, checking out who’s winning. I pretty much know all the scores [each night]. I’m just a basketball junkie. It’s something I live, and I’m sure the other guys do the same things I do and are very aware of it.”

On the one hand, there’s no sense in not playing for the higher seed, considering the advantages and it’s not like Rivers has been extending his veterans too much even as he’s shortened the rotation and injuries to Mickael Pietrus and Ray Allen have taken a toll on their depth.

Garnett’s minutes are closely monitored and he’ll rarely get extended on consecutive nights. Pierce’s minutes have actually gone down in March, which makes his 22-5-4 averages this month even more noteworthy. The danger is that losing Pierce, Garnett or Rajon Rondo would be crippling and you can put Brandon Bass in that category, as well. (It’s no surprise that one of their worst stretches coincided with the time Bass was out of the lineup with a knee injury).

It’s also worth pointing out that the statistical odds are not in the Celtics’ favor. They have less than a 12 percent chance of winning the division, per basketball-reference’s forecasting model, which says a lot about the schedule for both teams.

The Sixers play 11 of their 16 games on the road and have five sets of back-to-backs in addition to a three-in-three, but only seven of their remaining games are against playoff teams and they have five left against Washington and New Jersey. The Sixers have a 16-9 record against the teams that are left on their schedule.

This may be all a dead topic of conversation by April 13 when the Celtics gear up for their three games in three nights. Over the next two weeks they play Minnesota, Miami, San Antonio, Chicago, Indiana, Philly, Orlando and Atlanta. If they are still in contention by that point, then Rivers will have some decisions to make and the guess here is that they will be largely made for him.

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