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Celtics leap into #2 seed for first time since 2011

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Mission isn’t accomplished yet, but for the first time since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the Celtics have returned to elite NBA status.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

A week can change faster than Isaiah Thomas gets to the basket on the fast break. Days ago there was panic as the Celtics’ defense bottomed out. They then bounced back triumphantly against the monstrous Rockets offense, blew the Magic into oblivion and then capped it off with an ultra-impressive victory over a talented Bucks team on the road.

There were moments late in Milwaukee where it looked like the Cs were gassed on their fourth game in five nights. Even so, they gutted out sensational sets into overtime and pulled off one of those wins that seems to make up for a bad loss earlier in the season.

As the team sat with a rare off day, which Isaiah Thomas spent celebrating his son’s birthday, their symbolic payment came in the form of a massive upset north of the border.

When the Magic stunningly knocked off the Raptors 114-113, the Celtics returned to a spot they haven’t been to since their starting lineup consisted of a few talented men named Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

East standings courtesy Google.com

Back in 2011 the Celtics slipped behind the Heat and Bulls in the aftermath of a disastrous and now infamous trade that shipped Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City. They finished that season as the three seed and lost swiftly, and it was the end of the Celtics’ run of holding elite status in the NBA. One last improbable run in 2012 capped off the era, but the Celts were never again any higher than the three seed.

That is, until today, January 29, 2017.

It’s only temporary, and there’s about two and a half months of difficult basketball games in front of them, but the 2016-17 Celts have finally overcome their Toronto issues and leapfrogged them to be the lone two seed. Three and a half games still separate them from the defending-champion Cavaliers, and the Raptors could take back the lead any day, but this still feels like a moment for Brad Stevens’s rapid rebuild from the bottom up.

Ever since the lottery season that yielded Marcus Smart began, the Celtics are a lowly 4-10 against their Atlantic rivals and have surrendered the division on a yearly basis. Starting with the game that Boston barely blew as DeMar DeRozan played at a level slightly above human, it has felt like the tides have been slowly turning on that trend.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

To some this means absolutely nothing, and they have a point. It won’t matter what seed the Celtics end with if they don’t accomplish what we’ve all been waiting for: an advancement out of the first round of the playoffs. But I’ll counter that.

The Celtics are in a better position to make a deep playoff run if they’re a top-two seed in the East. Nobody would argue that going further in the playoffs is better than not doing so, even if the Finals aren’t in play. Anything is possible the further they get.

While there’s a massive lump of teams hovering around .500 at the bottom of the East, once the law of averages takes over after 82 games there will likely be a worse team sitting with the seven seed than the six seed. Claiming the two seed both guarantees that Boston will avoid Cleveland until the Eastern Conference Finals and will have home court in the second round.

Then, however unlikely, there’s a chance that if the Raptors continue to slide into the fourth slot in the east then they’ll be poised to face the Cavaliers in the second round. While it’d be almost certain that the Cavs would win that match-up, Toronto did push the ECF to six difficult games last postseason when Cleveland was ultimately the champ.

Again, none of that matters if the Celtics don’t take care of their own business. There’s still room for a minor roster adjustment that plugs their holes in rebounding and defense. But aside from those there’s something special about this moment. All of the doubts in the Celts are starting to be alleviated as they cash in on expectations.

Thomas is no longer a fringe, feel-good story in the Boston area; he’s now one of the best players in the entire league. He’s put up 20 points in 31 straight games and has scored over 35 points in 7 of his last 15. At the rate he continues to pour in buckets without any hope of the defense stopping him, he could become the first Celtics player to ever win the scoring title.

More importantly, the team is now starting to look like they can sustain injuries for the first time under Stevens. Avery Bradley and Al Horford were both absent for back-to-backs, and the team put up their best offensive and defensive games of the season, respectively. Terry Rozier has emerged back from his long benching, Jaylen Brown has thrived as a starter (10.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg in 23.8 min.) and Kelly Olynyk is now shooting 42% from three in the month of January. The role players have stepped up in the face of some massive absences and have filled sufficient roles.

Wednesday night at the TD Garden looms large. The Raptors and Celtics match up again in a game that’ll probably set the tone for the race atop the East for the rest of the year. Boston is 6-4 over their last ten, Toronto 4-6. Some value the thought of the two seed more than others, but remember, with Brooklyn five games worse than any other team, that pick allows the Celts to compete to the best of their ability this season without worrying about roster management.

Whether or not you think the Cs have a legitimate chance at competing for the East, their step up to the two seed is symbolic: they’re an elite team once again, and January has proven it. We can put away the panic button—even with this team’s nagging issues they have been so great to watch.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly indicated that Toronto would be lined up to play Cleveland in the second round if they dropped to the third seed. The Raptors have to drop to the fourth or fifth seed to be lined up with Cleveland in round two.