30 games remain on the Celtics' schedule, starting with the first game of what could arguably be the most grueling stretch of their season on Tuesday night in Denver, These next two months will constitute the stretch run for the Celts, the time of year when they make their playoff push.
It doesn't always work out that way. The 2010-2011 Celts were cruising along with the best record in the league at 41-14, having run off 14 straight wins at one point earlier in the year, before trading Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green, which resulted in a drop in the standings as opposed to a surge. Or the year before, when a 23-5 start turned into a 27-27 finish.
Both of those Celts' teams had a bigger margin for error than this one, which currently sits seventh in the Eastern Conference and, as we all know, has been decimated by injuries. Presuming the C's stand pat or at most, add depth to their bench come Thursday's trade deadline, this group will need to make some hay like last season's did in going 16-8 after the deadline.
Luckily for the Celts, outside of the defending champion Heat there are no truly legit contenders in the East. Should the C's avoid Miami in the first round, no lock by any measure, it wouldn't be terribly surprising to see them make another run come the postseason.
This isn't to say that it will be easy for the Celts once the playoffs roll around. It's not like the five teams ahead of them in the east standings not located in Miami are pushovers. It's that none of them are appreciably better than the Celts are.
So with that, let's take a look at what teams are most likely to wind up in the Eastern Conference playoff field and just how the Celtics measure up.
New York Knicks: 32-18, first in Atlantic, second in East
The Knicks have come a long way since acquiring Carmelo Anthony, failing to properly pair him with Amar'e Stoudemire and firing the soon-to-be-fired-again Mike D'Antoni. They raced out to an 18-5 start and though they've come back to earth somewhat since then, they've managed to assimilate Stoudemire into their rotation in a reserve role, have gotten a career year out of J.R. Smith and a nice comeback campaign from Ray Felton while not collapsing under the weight of being collectively old enough to compete in a retirement home league. Still, this doesn't feel like a group that is built for the playoffs. The Knicks' defensive rating of 106.1 is a middling 15th in the league and they are limited in the half court when Anthony isn't having success running iso set after iso set. Also, if all of the threes they take aren't falling, they're in trouble. The Celtics have already beaten them once without Rajon Rondo and could have beaten them a second time if not for a couple of late turnovers. The Knicks are better, but they can be beaten, especially by a tough defensive team like the Celts.
Indiana Pacers: 32-21, first in Central, third in East
If any team can give the Heat a run in the East it's the Pacers, who have the kind of size, rebounding and defense (first in the league in points allowed per game and defensive rating) that could give a team built like Miami some trouble. Indiana is facing a chemistry change with Danny Granger on the cusp of returning from a season long knee injury and there's a possibility that his presence in their lineup could stunt the growth of star-in-the-making Paul George, who has been terrific all year. The Pacers have won up to this point while getting far less than they'd hoped for when they matched a $58 million offer sheet for center Roy Hibbert last summer, making him their highest paid player for the next four years. Hibbert's scoring and shooting numbers are way down from last season and he's playing less than 30 minutes per night, not a lot for a 26-year old big man who is at the top of the team payroll. The Celtics wiped the floor with the Pacers in their only meeting thus far this season and will see them two more times including a game in Indianapolis in two weeks. The Celts and the Pacers could be on a collision course for a first round match up should both teams hang around their current positions in the standings. If Hibbert struggles and a defensive combination of Paul Pierce, Jeff Green and Avery Bradley can make life more difficult for the George/Granger duo, it's a match up the Celts could certainly win.
Brooklyn Nets: 31-22, second in Atlantic, fourth in East
Who knows what kind of team the Nets really are? They went bananas last summer, doling out money and long term deals in anticipation of their long awaited move to Brooklyn, started off very well, took a dive to the .500 mark that got coach Avery Johnson canned but have since played great under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo. Still, it's tough to decipher exactly who this team is. Deron Williams is having a down year and has dealt with ankle issues and while Brook Lopez has stepped up his game in the post, a couple of other guys expected to play key roles, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, have struggled. Add to that the fact that Joe Johnson is their go-to guy and remember how far that took the Hawks during his time in Atlanta and you'd be forgiven if you figure the Nets just might not be who they want to be. The Celts destroyed the Nets on Christmas Day in Brooklyn but have also lost to them twice, both close games. Still, they've yet to see the former residents of the New Jersey swamps since the coaching change. Williams is the X-factor for them. If he's on his game, the Nets will be a tough out. If he's not, they're the Hawks.
Chicago Bulls: 30-22, second in Central, fifth in East
The formula for the Bulls is pretty simple. If Derrick Rose comes back and plays anywhere near the level at which he's capable of playing, they can contend. If he comes back and is a shell of himself or just doesn't come back at all, they're done. This team deserves a truckload of credit for performing as well as it has without Rose. They lost five of seven headed into the break and have three games left with the Heat as well as roadies against the Spurs and Thunder and another Western Conference swing. Guys like Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler have given the Bulls enough alongside Carlos Boozer and All-Stars Luol Deng and Joakim Noah to hang around and coach Tom Thibodeau is among the league's best. Chicago is also as good as it gets defensively which helps their playoff chances considerably. The Bulls split their four meetings with the Celts and whenever those two teams meet, the action more often than not resembles a tractor pull than a basketball game. Should they see each other in the postseason as presently constituted, don't be surprised to see that series follow a similar pattern.
Atlanta Hawks: 29-22, second in Southeast, sixth in East
The Hawks always make the playoffs but rarely make any noise once they get there. Outside of a surprising, first round series win over Orlando a couple of years ago, Atlanta never seems able to take the next step whether the coach is Mike Woodson or Larry Drew, the go-to guy is Josh Smith or Joe Johnson, or if it's raining or sunny. Now, with the team practically putting Smith next to a bunch of cubic zirconium on QVC in a whole hog effort to move him before Thursday's deadline, it's tough to figure where the Hawks are actually going. Obviously, their playoff chances will turn on what they get back for Smith if they do deal him. If they don't, they'd better hope he's motivated to prove to the rest of the league that he's worth a max deal and not just a bigger, quicker, more athletic version of Antoine Walker, a player with tremendous low post skills and the ability to dominate inside who'd prefer to hang around the perimeter and jack up three-pointers. Front court mate Al Horford is a star and Jeff Teague is a good, not great, point guard. But without Johnson, the Hawks don't really have a guy guaranteed to get the ball down the stretch of a tight game. This may be a good thing seeing as how Johnson never really elevated them in that role. Still, whether they keep Smith or deal him, the Celtics know how to beat the Hawks and shouldn't have much trouble doing so if their paths somehow cross in the playoffs. Now if Smith does get dealt and it's (gulp) to the Celts? Well...
Milwaukee Bucks: 26-25, third in Central, eighth in East
The Bucks can fire their coach, make a gigantic trade or stand on their collective heads. They still won't manage to get past a low seed or the first round if they're even able to achieve that much. This franchise has advanced past the first round exactly once since 1989 and hasn't even made the postseason since 2009, the only season in it's last 10 that ended with a winning record. The Bucks' trade of Andrew Bogut for Monta Ellis last season worked for them in the sense that the oft-injured Bogut has barely played since, but didn't in that Ellis can't seem to play with anyone, especially another diminutive guard (in this case Brandon Jennings), something Milwaukee should have known after he failed to co-exist with Stephen Curry at Golden State. Now, both Ellis and Jennings could be on the trade block and the Bucks, who are working with an interim coach in Jim Boylan after the predictable departure of Scott Skiles, are in their typical position floating around the periphery of the playoff picture. From the No. 8 spot, they're four games better than their closest competitor for that seeding which means they'd have to really stink out the joint to not earn themselves a right to get swept by the Heat in the first round. The Celtics won't see them in the postseason barring some sort of miracle.
Philadephia 76ers: 22-29, fourth in Atlantic, ninth in East
You kind of have to feel bad for the Sixers. After nearly shocking the Celtics in last year's conference semis (after receiving the gift of Derrick Rose's injury just to get that far), they made a bold move in trading for Andrew Bynum to try to push them to the next level. As we all know, Bynum has played in exactly zero games for them with no guarantee that he ever will given his impending free agency and troublesome knees. So, despite point guard Jrue Holiday busting out, the Sixers are on the outside looking in. They could still make it, especially if one of the three teams closest to them in the standings (Milwaukee, Boston, Atlanta) makes an earth-shattering deal and takes itself out of contention. Still, as presently constituted, without a real inside threat and minus the grit and leadership of Andre Iguodala that was so important to them last year, the Sixers probably aren't going anywhere even if they do make it.