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Celtics enter home stretch with favorable schedule

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens often dismisses chatter about schedule quirks. Extended road trips? Back-to-backs? Strength of schedule? From the day he arrived in July 2013, he stressed to his players that none of these things would be valid excuses for underperforming. It calls to mind the famous quote by Larry Bird who, after examining the schedule for an upcoming season, opined: "41 home, 41 road. Looks good to me."

After dropping two out of three on the road to open the post-All-Star portion of their schedule, the Celtics return home this week to begin a season-long five-game homestand. In fact, seven of Boston's next eight games will be played at TD Garden, and 14 out of its final 24 games overall are inside friendly confines. What's more, the Celtics play only one back-to-back over the next three weeks -- trekking to Cleveland on March 5 after a home game against the Knicks -- but three off days follow.

The Celtics, a sub-.500 team at home through early January, have won eight straight at TD Garden to improve to 17-10 for the season. Stevens won't let his team get too comfortable about this homestand, in part because Boston has lost to three of its next five opponents (Milwaukee, Utah, New York), while Portland has won 10 of its past 11 and Miami is a team that just slipped in front of the Celtics in the East standings.

The Celtics, recent stumble aside, project well based on the home-friendly nature of their schedule, but Stevens will remind them that none of that matters unless they actually perform on the court.

According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, Boston currently forecasts at 47.9 wins, two wins more than both Miami (45.9) and Indiana (45.5). It's an even bigger projected cushion over teams like the Hawks (44.1), Hornets (43.6), Bulls (43), and Pistons (41.4). BPI still pegs Boston's most likely land spot as the No. 3 seed, forecasting the Celtics with a 47.5 percent chance to finish there.

Still, there's about a third of the season left to play, and the Celtics can't lean on past success with hopes of landing one of the top spots in the East. Home court is a priority -- and a 75.3 percent chance at a top-four spot is encouraging. But Boston knows there's increased value in being No. 3 or higher because it would mean potentially avoiding the top seed (likely the Cavaliers) until at least the Eastern Conference Finals.

Before Monday's loss in Minnesota, Stevens noted how, in the crowded East, Boston remains as close to being out of the playoffs as it does to being the No. 2 seed.

"We’re as close to ninth as we are to second," he said. "That’s real. That’s what it is. ... Outside of Cleveland and Toronto, everybody else you can throw in a hat. We just happen to be able to put together some wins here, but that stuff is going to go up and down. You’re going to have to play these last 25 games as well as you can. You’re not going to feel safe, that’s for sure."

It's probably too early to get too caught up in scoreboard watching, but Celtics fans have dual interest in monitoring the out-of-town happenings. Not only is there Boston's playoff seeding, but interest in where Brooklyn -- and the unprotected first-round pick the Nets will deliver -- might land.

About the only silver lining some can pluck from Boston's loss in Minnesota on Monday was that it nudged the Wolves a little bit further ahead of the Nets. Brooklyn currently owns the fourth-worst record in basketball as the free-falling Suns -- losers of 12 straight -- have slipped behind Brooklyn.

BPI projections currently forecast the Nets (22.2 wins) to actually finish behind the Suns (22.7), but the statistical model can't take into account the fact that Phoenix is highly motivated to bottom out, while Brooklyn has no incentive to pack it in. According to NBA lottery-monitoring website Tankathon, there's a 3.7 percent drop in the chance at the No. 1 pick between basement teams Nos. 3 and 4 in the draft lottery. What's more, the chance at a top-3 pick drops 9.1 percent between those spots.

The Celtics can't do much about the pick -- well, unless they decide to downshift a bit in a game later this season against the Suns -- and those two losses to the Nets might get a little tougher to swallow by season's end. But Boston can control its own playoff fate and this home-heavy stretch is a chance to better position the team for postseason success.