With the dust settling on an unusually spectacular All-Star Weekend, the Boston Celtics will now enjoy nearly a week of R&R. It’s hard to argue they haven’t earned it. In a season with fairly low expectations, they’ve rocketed out to the fourth-best record (and third-best net rating) in the entire NBA. A few days off will afford them some time to (finally) get healthy, and while they rest, we can take a look to see what challenges lie ahead in their remaining 28 games.
Catching the historically dominant Milwaukee Bucks is most likely a pipe dream. The Bucks have been close to indomitable, flirting with a 70-win season and holding an eight-game lead over the Celtics at the All-Star break. Instead, the immediate focus needs to be on the second tier of the Eastern Conference — Toronto, Miami, Philadelphia and Indiana — and the ever-important season tiebreakers that could determine home court advantage in a playoff series.
As calculated by the ever-reliable Tankathon, the Celtics are facing down the 12th-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA. Not what you’d call easy, but it should be manageable for a team with this much talent. It’s also negligibly different from both Toronto (11th) and Indiana (16th) in the grand scheme of things. Miami is sitting quite a bit prettier, as their schedule is just the 26th-most difficult, but since they already trail the Celtics 2-0 in the season series, the Celtics only need to beat them in one of their two remaining contests to claim the tiebreaker.
The real wild card here is Philadelphia. Unlikely as it may sound, the Sixers are in a favorable position heading into the second half of the season — if, of course, they can overcome their season-long instability in time. The Sixers have the second-easiest remaining schedule in basketball, and notably have already won the season series over the Celtics, 3-1. They trail Boston by just 4.5 games in the current standings, and profile as a poor match-up for the current Celtics’ roster. Despite their woes, they can’t be dismissed as an Eastern Conference threat.
All this leaves Boston with a narrow margin of error. If they continue to perform at the level they have thus far, they should have a strong shot at the second seed in the Eastern Conference and home court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. But with playoff seeds likely to be separated by very few games — if any, in some cases — speed bumps could prove disastrous. With that in mind, let’s highlight a few games on the schedule that would seem to come with particularly higher stakes.
Friday, February 21 - Saturday, February 29: @ Minnesota Timberwolves, @ Los Angeles Lakers, @ Portland Trail Blazers, @ Utah Jazz, vs. Houston Rockets
Perhaps the only major point of concern in Boston’s breakthrough season has been their performance on the road. It’s been an issue with the Celtics for seemingly all of time: they enjoy a dominant home court advantage at TD Garden, but perform like a much more middling team away from home. So far this season, it’s held as true as ever: the Celtics are 25-3 on their home court and 15-11 anywhere else.
For that reason, their immediate schedule coming out of the All-Star break looks particularly imposing. They’re going on a Western Conference road trip against four teams that cannot be taken lightly, and then welcoming themselves home with a rematch against a Houston Rockets team that frustrated them just before the break.
The Minnesota Timberwolves may dwell in the cellar of the West, but they have something to prove after shaking up their roster at the trade deadline, and are only two games removed from hanging 142 points on the Clippers on their home court. The Lakers and Jazz, meanwhile, have consistently ranked among the West’s elite teams, while the Trail Blazers need to scrap for every win they can get to keep their playoff hopes alive. None of these teams are likely to go down quietly.
It’s easy to dismiss out-of-conference match ups as less meaningful, since they don’t directly influence playoff positioning and don’t feature teams the Celtics are likely to see in the playoffs. But a slow start out of the break could afford their Eastern Conference competition a valuable chance to gain ground.
Tuesday, March 10 - Thursday, March 12: @ Indiana Pacers, @ Milwaukee Bucks
Skimming ahead to March, we encounter what will be the theme for many of their most important remaining games this season: high-profile Eastern Conference showdowns on the road.
In this particular two-game stretch, the Celtics face two teams they’ve yet to beat outside of the Garden. They’ve split their two match ups against Milwaukee with each team winning on their home floor. Catching the Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings is, again, a long shot, but if Boston wants to give themselves a chance, a win in the Fiserv Forum is a necessity.
Meanwhile, the Celtics dropped their lone contest against the Pacers in Indiana this past December, despite 44 points from Kemba Walker. The Pacers are a bit of a forgotten entity in the East at the moment. They went on a miniature tailspin following Victor Oladipo’s return to the lineup, losing six straight games after an overtime victory against Chicago. But they closed their first half on a high note with a hard-fought win against Milwaukee, and can only stand to improve as Oladipo (who, notably, always seems to feast against the Celtics) returns to game shape. A road win here would give the Celtics a chance to clinch the season series at home in April, and likely spare them some seeding drama near the season’s end.
Friday, March 20: @ Toronto Raptors
For my money, this is probably the single most important game on the Celtics’ remaining schedule. The Raptors look like Boston’s strongest competition for the second seed in the conference, with the all-important home court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs on the line. This is where a tiebreaker is most likely to come into play, as Toronto has been utterly consistent on their way to 40 first half wins and seems like a poor bet to slow down any time soon.
Entering the second half, they trail Toronto for the East’s second seed by just 1.5 games, with a 2-1 advantage in the season series. Picking up a second win in Canada and securing the season series will be one of the most important steps towards claiming the two seed by season’s end.
Friday, April 10 - Saturday, April 11: @ Orlando Magic, @ Miami Heat
Finally, the Celtics will travel to Miami to battle the Heat in Game 79. This is one that could end up not mattering at all, as the Celtics will host Miami just five games prior with a chance to lock down the season series. This late in the season, it’s entirely possible that playoff seeding will be all but settled, and teams will be looking ahead to the playoffs.
If they don’t take care of the Heat in Boston, however, this stretch becomes formidable. They face the Heat on the tail end of a back-to-back, after battling the Orlando Magic (a team with playoff aspirations of their own) the night before. The Heat trail the Celtics by three games at the break; if they stay on the Celtics’ heels into April, they could be in excellent position to jump Boston in the standings in the season’s final days.