Let's the get the seeding question out of the way. Here's where we stand on the final day of the season:
Official scenarios for the Eastern Conference "3-6 Mafia" pic.twitter.com/zdZXp9Hroc— CBS Sports NBA (@CBSSportsNBA) April 13, 2016
Put plainly, the Celtics need to win (with a motivated Hawks team beating a depleted Washington team playing for nothing) if they want to be hosting a series this weekend. Going into this final game and possible playoff preview vs. Miami, the Celtics already have a 2-0 edge in the season series. They beat them early in the season in South Beach and again in a Saturday matinee at the Garden in late February. Both games were slugfests that were determined in the fourth quarter, and we can expect the same kind of game in tonight's Round 3.
The Celtics will be well rested after a blowout loss to Charlotte on Monday and, more importantly, highly motivated and mad as hell. After playing just over 20 minutes Monday night, Isaiah Thomas addressed the media yesterday and bristled at getting benched. He seemed miffed to ride the pine in such a critical game, but it sounds like after two sub-par games, IT4 is ready for tonight and the post-season:
"It makes me come out the next game on fire, with a different mindset and just prove to him that [Stevens] might have made the wrong decision," said Thomas. "I don't know. It's makes you rethink things and lock back in, and you've got to play better, do better. The coach is just doing whatever he can to make this team the best team possible, and you've got to roll with whatever he decides."
Going into this three-game set against the three potential playoff opponents, I've always thought Miami would be the best match-up, and heading into tonight, Boston already has a few things on their side. First of all, it's Miami's third game in four nights in three different arenas with the Heat playing a tough game at the Palace last night. Four of their starters played 33+ minutes including the 30-plus-year-old trio of Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, and Luol Deng. They will likely be without Ainge-coveted rookie Justise Winslow, who's out with a bum ankle, and Udonis Haslem, who has had good games against the Celtics in the past and who left the Pistons game with a foot injury.
And that's just the personnel. Stylistically, the teams are very different, and it will be up to Boston to dicate at home how this game will be played. In their last meeting, Boston ramped up the pace to 103.9 possessions, and by the end of the fourth quarter, they turned a two-point deficit after the third into a ten-point win. Hassan Whiteside still controlled the paint in that game, but the Celtics collectively turned up the Heat on the heat and generated 18 turnovers. On average, the Celtics are the third-highest paced team in the league just behind the Golden State Warriors at 101.27 possessions per 48. With a road-weary Miami team in town that already plays pretty slow at 95.8, look for Brad Stevens to be ultra-aggressive defensively on the perimeter because the Heat are not a good outside shooting team.
After being one of the best teams in the NBA defending the 3, April has brought showers of three-pointers on the Celtics. After keeping teams in that 33% 3FG% all year, Boston has given up 42.9% in the last six games. Some have come in wins (20-for-43 by the Warriors), but in the losses, the Hornets and Hawks shot 14-for-32 and 17-for-33 respectively from behind the arc, and for a team that has a very small margin of error, that just won't cut it. However, with the Heat, it may not be such a problem. Miami is third to last in 3FGAs at 18 a game, and they don't make many either at 33.9%. They'll be content running a bunch of ISOs in the mid-range, and individual defenders like Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart should be able to handle the aging Heat.
The strange thing is, if Boston wins and Charlotte takes care of business at home against Orlando, the Celtics could be setting themselves up for a more difficult match-up with the Hornets in round one. They'd have home court advantage against a team they won the season series against 2-1 (despite the Monday loss), but you have to wonder if a loss to Miami sets them up better as an underdog #6 seed heading to American Airlines Arena on Saturday or Sunday. It keeps the Celtics out of the Cleveland side of the bracket (if that's your preference), and there might be some extra motivation from this overachieving team that missed out on a chance of going into the playoffs at #3.