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The Eastern Conference race is heating up - can the Celtics retake the lead?

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The Raptors are surging and the Cavaliers have reloaded. Now what?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors - Game Four Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

A three game losing streak heading into the All Star break has the Boston Celtics in a position that they haven’t been for most of the season... looking up in the standings at another team.

The Raptors have won 7 straight games (including one over the Celtics recently) and currently sit two games ahead of Boston. The Cavaliers are 6.5 games behind due to numerous early season struggles. However, they just reloaded their roster and the newcomers have paid immediate dividends. They are riding a 4 game winning streak, including a blowout win over the Celtics in their first game together. Below the Cavs are 6 teams within 5 games of each other.

Boston has 23 games left in the season and more and more it seems like home court is going to be critical in the playoffs. Securing that number 1 seed could ensure that they didn’t have to play either the Raptors or Cavs until the Eastern Conference Finals (and then only one of them).

It is hard to say exactly what is going on with the Celtics right now. They are mostly healthy (with the notable exception of Marcus Smart and the obvious season long absence of Gordon Hayward). The offense has been inconsistent all season (and just flat out bad when Kyrie Irving isn’t on the floor). The defense, which has been the team’s strength all year, has taken an unexpected dive recently as well.

Brad Stevens was quick to point that out.

“We’ve had too many lapses,” Horford said. “I don’t know if it’s mental fatigue. I don’t know what it is. We just need to be better. There is a reason we won all of those games (early in the year). It was because of our defense. We need to make sure that is our mindset going into the break and coming back in the second half.

“We need to set our priorities straight with what we need to do. I know that we want to be up tempo, and we want to run and do a lot of things on offense, and that’s all good. But we know what it takes — defending and rebounding. That’s where we will be at our best.”

If there is any mental fatigue or flat out fatigue (or in the case of Jayson Tatum, rookie wall?), the hope here is that the All Star break gives them the rest needed to hit the ground running for the stretch run. Getting back a healthy Marcus Smart could (and should) give the defense a boost as well. Also, it wouldn’t hurt newcomer Greg Monroe to get in a few more practices and walkthroughs with the team.

Stevens has even hinted at changing up the lineup and rotations. Sometimes a tweak here or there is enough of a spark that a team needs. Everyone brings different talents to the table and maybe a different mix will bring out some better rotations or looks at the basket.

Whatever it takes, the team needs to find the right combination to get back to their winning ways. Otherwise they’ll face the uphill challenge of a harder bracket and perhaps a Cleveland matchup sooner than they’d like to see.