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The Celtics must keep an eye on the Hawks down the stretch.Celtics coach Doc Rivers walked into the locker room after Wednesday's win over the Knicks and an assistant relayed that Raptors had rallied from a double-digit deficit to top the Hawks earlier that evening.
"I wasn't sure what that meant," said Rivers, who before the game noted that he's somewhat aware of the teams jockeying for the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff spots, but that he doesn't pay attention to where the Celtics are pegged to end up among the top four seeds, noting that would, "shake itself out."
Whether he's feigning ignorance or truly indifferent, the battle for the third spot could ultimately be the biggest story line of the final five weeks of the regular season for Boston. And, whether the Celtics want to or not, they need to be cognizant of how the Hawks are faring.
Why is it such a big deal? We discussed it a bit in this week's Celtics Mailbag:
The No. 4 seed currently projects to have a playoff path that features the Bucks, Cavaliers and Magic (if the top seeds take care of business). Conversely, the No. 3 seed projects to a much more accommodating path -- at least for Boston -- of the Bobcats, Magic and Cavaliers.
Our stance has been that a young and athletic Bucks squad that beat the Celtics earlier this month stands to give the team far more headaches than a Bobcats squad that the Green have absolutely trampled this season. It seems fair to consider that, given the Celtics' first-round taffy pulls the past two seasons with the Hawks and Bulls, a team like Milwaukee could push Boston to the limit in the opening round. Then the Celtics would be looking at a second-round matchup with a Cavaliers team that is likely to devour the eighth seed in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
The Celtics undoubtedly don't fear either path, but there's something to be said for making the postseason journey as painless as possible. That's why most teams view homecourt advantage as so important. Every little edge can help in the second season. But Boston players are likely to tell you that it doesn't matter who or where they play, a championship team has to go through good opponents regardless of the path.
“I know a lot of people are saying, ‘You don’t want to be in that No. 4 seed and face Cleveland in the second round,'" said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. “But, shoot, we both have to get to the second round."
So here's how it shakes down. Cleveland (54-15) and Orlando (49-21) have all but guaranteed themselves the top two spots in the East, while the Celtics and Hawks enter Friday's action with matching 43-24 records. Since Atlanta swept the four-game season series against Boston, it essentially holds a one-game edge via the tie-breaker (even if -- more like when -- the Celtics clinch the Atlantic Division, playoff rules allow the second-place team to leapfrog a division winner in the seedings).
Rivers has stressed the Celtics' biggest concern over the final weeks of the season has to getting their superstars in peak form for the postseason run. That's probably indisputable as we've seen what this team is able to accomplish when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett play to their potential. But the Green cannot afford to sacrifice wins at the cost of simply aiding those players in getting into a rhythm, or else they might not be around long enough in the postseason for it to have mattered.