As the Celtics' rebuild progresses, the goals and expectations have changed too. Last season's playoff berth was the first step, and the team has built on that foundation with a chance to earn home-court advantage in the first round with home games against the Heat and Hornets to close out the season this week. That might seem like just another feather in the cap of a young team in the process of becoming a contender, but as Marcus Smart says, "I'd be lying if I said the seeding doesn't matter, but it really does. We want that third spot, so we're going to try and do everything we can to get it."
Of course it matters. Smart goes on to say that they want to avoid LeBron and the Cavaliers as long as possible, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Celtics still need to win their first round series and they'll need home court against any and all the teams between #4 and #6.
On January 13th after a loss to the Knicks on the road, the Celtics were 19-19 on the season and a dismal 9-10 at home in the Garden. Brad Stevens tinkered with the lineups by completely eliminating David Lee from the rotation and utlizing more small-ball units with guard trios and Jae Crowder at the 4. They rattled off 13 straight wins at home and have been 17-2 in Boston since implementing those changes.
Where has it made a difference? Offensively, they're only marginally better on offense when they're on the parquet, but they're a much better defensive team at home, averaging a 97.2 defensive rating at TD Garden vs. 104.0 on the road. Since that road loss in New York, the Celtics have held teams to 43.1 FG% shooting in Boston, good for 4th in the league. They're better at defending the three point line (32.6% vs. 37.0%) and keeping teams off the free throw line (25.7 FTA's vs. 28 FTA's).
But the biggest difference has been the Celtics performance in the clutch. With the game in the balance, the Celtics are 10-1 at home and only 5-7 on the road. They're shooting a ridiculous 61.7% vs. 41.0% with the lead at five points or less with five minutes to go. They also turn up the heat on defense (pun intended because, personally, I want to see Miami in round one). Opponents are shooting a respectable 41.2% against the Celtics defense at home, but in Boston, the Celtics' pesky D suffocates them at 27.3%.
Last night's loss in Atlanta was a perfect example. With 5:08 left in the third, an Avery Bradley free throw cut the lead to 105-103 after pressuring Jeff Teague into a turnover. After that possession, the Celtics finished the game 1-for-8 from the field and their only made shot was an R.J. Hunter three in garbage time. The Hawks on the other hand scored 14 points on 4-for-8 shooting including two clutch threes from Al Horford and Teague.
Boston has won big games on the road against good teams (ahem, the Warriors and Cavaliers), but in a seven-game series, you don't only want to be hosting Game 7 if it goes that far. You want that pivotal Game 5 in your backyard. Playoff games tend to be slower and more deliberate affairs between better teams, and that could lead to tighter games down the stretch. If Boston is in a position where they have to close out games late in the fourth, better to have a home whistle and the Garden crowd on your side.
With that loss in Atlanta last night, Boston falls into a three-way tie in the loss column with Miami and Charlotte with both teams likely winners today. With the #3 seed realistically out of play, home court advantage will probably be determined with the Hornets in town Monday. Assuming the Pistons beat the Heat on Tuesday, Wednesday's finale against Miami in TD Garden could be irrelevant...if the Celtics defend home court against the Hornets tomorrow night. If the game against Atlanta was a must-win for a #3 seed, they have to have Monday night's game if they want to host a playoff game next weekend.