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Predicting the Celtics schedule: two steps forward, one step back, but still moving forward

After a grueling start to the season, the Celtics should finish strong and earn the second seed in the East.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In ESPN’s Celtics Summer Forecast, I predicted the Celtics to finish second in the East with a 53-29 record and yes, represent the conference in the NBA Finals. I wrote:

The Celtics will be bigger, faster and stronger next season. Danny Ainge replaced Sullinger with Horford and Stevens will look to inject youth into the lineup with Brown and Rozier filling that Turner-sized hole in the rotation. They'll be better on both ends of the floor with a versatile roster that can score anywhere on the floor and guard the likes of LeBron James and Steph Curry with multiple players. A five-game improvement doesn't seem like a big bump, but that should be good enough for the No. 2 seed in the East.

Let's set aside the idea that a big trade is coming because, as is, this is a team that can make it to the NBA Finals. The East has flattened out and the champs are weaker. More importantly, Boston improved dramatically this summer. There's a reason whyKevin Durant had the Celtics on his dance card. They have specific plans on how to beat the league's best with defensive versatility and unselfishness on offense. And yeah, they can still strike a deal between now and the February trade deadline and get even better.

Per Jae Crowder’s admission, the team has a very specific game plan to beat the best in the league, and if you believe the recent rumors about a possible trade for Nerlens Noel, the Cs are still looking to get better before training camp opens in less than two months. However, the team still has 82 games—yes, Larry, 41 at home and 41 away—to play and anything can happen.

The schedule came out yesterday, and Jared put together some of the highlights. At the macro level, it’s a schedule of imbalance. While there are fewer back-to-backs (17), and the team gets a big bump in national exposure with 22 games on national TV, the first two months of the season are brutal. The Celtics don’t have a home stand longer than two games in October, November, and December, and 20 out of their first 34 games are on the road. That makes for a nice home stretch to close out 2016-2017, but the team could struggle out of the gate.

However, according to ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle, the Celtics do have the easiest schedule in terms of rest and opponent:

The Celtics get plenty of the Knicks, Nets, and Sixers. Seven of their 17 back-to-backs finish in Boston. They have 17 long-rest games and their 25 games with rest advantage ranks third. It all adds up.

And for what it’s worth (a lottery pick in a heralded draft), the Nets have the toughest schedule.

At the micro level, I like to break down the schedule into 4-6 game chunks with the mindset that if the team can win two out of every three games, you’re looking at a 50+ win season and hosting a first round series in the playoffs. Let’s see how the schedule shakes out (bold represents back-to-backs):

Brooklyn, @Chicago, @Charlotte, Chicago, @Cleveland: That’s a doozy of a first five games with two back-to-backs. Beating Brooklyn is a must-win, and that mini-series with Chicago is a good barometer of how the team adjusts, but that back-end game in Cleveland should be circled on everybody’s calendar. (3-2)

Denver, @Washington, New York, @Indiana, @New Orleans: Split the EC road games and win at home and I’ll be happy. (7-3)

Dallas, Golden State, @Detroit, @Minnesota, @Brooklyn, San Antonio: I’m really looking forward to seeing how Brad Stevens game plans against the Warriors and Spurs. They’re polar opposites of each other, and the team’s versatility could really be tested. (11-5)

@Miami, Detroit, Sacramento, @Philadelphia, @Houston, @Orlando: They’ll have to crisscross the country on this six-game stretch, but they won’t face any elite teams. (15-7)

Toronto, @Oklahoma City, @San Antonio, Charlotte: Just win the home games. (17-9)

@Miami, @Memphis, @Indiana, Oklahoma City, @New York: This block scares me. They’ll be travelling a bunch before heading into that Christmas game at Madison Square Garden. I’ll take a 2-3 record, but let’s beat the Knicks when I’m opening presents and show Russell Westbrook what he’s missing when he’s in town. (19-12)

Memphis, @Cleveland, Miami, Utah, Philadelphia, New Orleans: It’ll be the Celtics’ first home stand that’s longer than two games. (23-14)

@Toronto, Washington, @Atlanta, Charlotte, New York, Portland: A nice stretch of TD Garden cooking will help the team finish strong heading into All-Star weekend. Welcome back, Evan. This used to be your playground, Al. (28-15)

@Washington, Houston, Orlando, @Milwaukee: The dreaded four games in five nights. Thankfully, they’ll be at home for three of those nights, but that’s still a speed bump in the schedule, and the Celtics will have to rely on their depth. (31-16)

Detroit, Toronto, LAL, LAC: Beat LA. (35-16)

@Sacramento, @Portland, @Utah, @Dallas, Philadelphia, @Chicago: The Celtics’ first West coast trip of the season comes right before ASW. Teams tend to show some wear and tear in February, and trade rumors could rattle a few of the younger players. Going .500 would be nice. (38-19)

@Toronto, @Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland: The first four games after the trade deadline are against four teams that could be vying for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Let’s split ‘em. (40-21)

@LAL, @Phoenix, @LAC, @Golden State, @Denver: The second left coast swing. They should win three games out west, but I can see fatigue setting in after a 12-out-of-15-games-on-the-road stretch will catch up with them. (43-23)

Chicago, Minnesota, @Brooklyn, @Philadelphia, Washington: Thankfully, when teams start to jockey for position in March and April, the Celtics hit a soft part of their schedule (finally). (47-24)

Indiana, Phoenix, Miami, Milwaukee, Orlando: Cruise control. (51-25)

@New York, Cleveland, @Atlanta, @Charlotte, Brooklyn, Milwaukee: The #2 seed will probably still be in contention in the final two weeks of the season, but Stevens could elect to rest players heading into the playoffs. 3-3 sounds like stumbling to close out, but just beat the Nets for sure, always and forever and ever. (54-28)

Fifty four wins is just about winning two-thirds of your games. There are some really tough stretches in the schedule this season, but as long as they can keep their head above water and maintain their brilliance in back-to-backs, there’s no reason this team can’t be the clear cut second best team in the Eastern Conference.