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Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Jockeying for position: C's project at No. 3

By Chris Forsberg

Here's something that might be more sobering than the fact that the Boston Celtics have lost seven of their last 12 overall: Boston's shot at the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference dropped off by nearly 30 percent in the last seven days and suddenly Boston has a better chance at landing the No. 3 seed than the top seed it talked so much about before the 2010-11 season. Both the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat have been on fire lately (both 8-2 in their last 10; Boston is 5-5 in that span) and, even when the Bulls stumbled Monday against Philadelphia, the Celtics couldn't take advantage. Now Boston finds itself two games back of the Bulls with nine games to play, while Miami has pulled even with the Celtics. Head-to-head matchups between Boston and its two top foes -- both on the road -- highlight the remaining schedule. Here's a closer look at the race atop the East:

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1. Chicago Bulls (53-20, .726)
Chance at top seed: 85.8 percent; Projected: 60-22
Conference: 32-13; Streak: Loss 1; Games Back: --

Road ahead: HOME (4) -- Toronto, Phoenix, Boston, New Jersey; AWAY (5) -- Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, Orlando, New York

The skinny: The Bulls rallied back from a sizable deficit but couldn't top the 76ers for a win that might have cemented their status as top seed in the East. Fortunately for Chicago, the Celtics couldn't capitalize and a very forgiving schedule over the final nine leaves them the favorite to clinch the conference's top spot. Also working in the Bulls' favor: Chicago plays only two more back-to-back this season, opening against the Celtics on April 7 before visiting lowly Cleveland the next night and a Knicks/Nets combo to end the regular season.


2. Boston Celtics (51-22, .699)
Chance at top seed: 6.5 percent; Projected: 57-25
Conference: 33-11; Streak: Loss 1; Games Back: 2

Road ahead: HOME (4) -- Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, New York; AWAY (5) -- San Antonio, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Washington

The skinny: Showing no signs of snapping out of their recent funk, the Celtics continue to stumble towards the finish line and plummeted from a 36.1 percent chance at the top seed last Tuesday, all the way to a 6.5 percent chance this week. Yes, Miami is currently projected with both a better chance at the No. 1 seed and a better record, which means the Celtics are in danger of falling to the third seed (which right now would mean a first-round series with Philadelphia and having to travel on the road to Miami and Chicago in later rounds, if top seeds won out). If nothing else, Boston could do itself a slight favor by hanging on to the No. 2 spot (it owns the head-to-head tie-breaker with three wins already over Miami) as that would ensure homecourt advantage in the conference semifinals.


3. Miami Heat (51-22, .699)
Chance at top seed: 7.7 percent; Projected: 58-24
Conference: 32-12; Streak: Win 5; Games Back: 2

Road ahead: HOME (3) -- Milwaukee, Charlotte, Boston; AWAY (6) -- Cleveland, Washington, Minnesota, New Jersey, Atlanta, Toronto

The skinny: It's a road-heavy finish for the Heat, but there's only one playoff team in that road mix (Atlanta) and the other five squads have combined for a mere 92 wins between them (New Jersey's 23 the tops in the bunch). The home games all feature teams with inspiration, including Milwaukee and Charlotte clawing for their playoff lives, but the visit from Boston might ultimately decide who gets that No. 2 seed. Miami only boasts one more back-to-back, starting with a visit from Boston on April 10 and visiting Atlanta the next night.
 
 
Required reading: Hollinger's Playoff Odds | NBA Standings | Playoff Predictor
Follow the race: ESPN Boston | ESPN Chicago | The Heat Index