- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers woke up Tuesday morning with matching records in the race for the Atlantic Division crown. It's down to a 17-game sprint for bragging rights and, more importantly, a preferred spot in the Eastern Conference playoff seedings.
For the Celtics, any desire to maintain their recent stranglehold on the division title is complicated by two matters: (1) The 76ers already own the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of winning the first two of three meetings between the teams; and (2) Boston has a far more daunting schedule the rest of the way (and hasn't exactly feasted on the brass of the league to this point).
The Celtics' remaining opponents own a .554 winning percentage, the strongest remaining slate in the Eastern Conference, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Meanwhile, the 76ers' opponents own a mere .453 winning percentage, the second easiest remaining schedule. Only Milwaukee, which hopes to bump Boston from the postseason, is easier at .442.
April looks especially challenging for Boston. Not only are there 15 games in 26 days, including its only back-to-back-to-back of the season in the middle of the month, but the first seven games are all against playoff teams. And not just any playoff teams, but one game against a No. 1 seed (Chicago), three against No. 2 seeds (San Antonio, Miami twice) and three games against other teams currently in front the Celtics in the East (Philadelphia, Indiana, Atlanta).
Boston comes up for air with a four-game road trip that opens with games on three consecutive days, in Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte. And that's the easy part of the schedule.
The Celtics close the regular season against four more potential playoff teams (New York, Orlando, Atlanta and Miami) and that team eager to steal a spot in the East (Milwaukee).
Essentially, if the Celtics want to climb from their current projection as a No. 7 seed, they need to take care of business against the same teams they will see in the playoffs. Yet Boston is a mere 7-8 against East playoff teams this season (though that's after losing its first five), so it won't be easy to pad the win column.
Philadelphia took a half-game lead atop the Atlantic with Tuesday's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. From here, the 76ers play 11 of their final 16 games away from home, upping the degree of difficulty for a team that's 10-12 away from the Wells Fargo Center this season. But only seven of their remaining games are against playoff teams (all Eastern Conference foes).
Boston's best chance to make a move comes with the final head-to-head matchup with the 76ers on Easter Sunday at TD Garden. Philadelphia will be coming off a visit from Orlando the night before, when the Celtics play in Indiana. It's a matchup that figures to go a long way toward determining who gets the No. 4 seed.
The motivation for that, of course, is homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs and a somewhat less-daunting first-round matchup (the No. 4 seed would currently project to play fifth-seeded Indiana).
But things would be tough in the second round. If the top seeds prevail in the quarterfinals, the Atlantic champ would meet the top seed, right now the Chicago Bulls, in a series that is expected to include back-to-back games because of the condensed playoff timeframe.
So what happens if Boston settles for a lower seed?
There's a line of thought that landing the No. 7 seed isn't the worst thing in the world. Sure, it likely means a matchup with Miami in the opening round, but the Celtics have proven that -- when healthy -- they match up well with the Heat. And there would be the potential to rest starters late in the regular season so they'd be in the best possible position to make hay in the postseason.
The secondary benefit in that scenario? A first-round upset gives Boston a more favorable second-round matchup (facing the winner of the 3-6 matchup, which currently projects as Orlando vs. Atlanta).
An intriguing question is how hard should the Celtics push for the No. 5 or 6 seed (Boston is currently 2½ games back of both Indiana and Atlanta). Of course, moving up would require some serious winning for both Boston and Philadelphia.
Orlando is a virtual lock for the No. 3 seed and, should Boston land the No. 6 seed, it would face a team it has had a lot of success against in recent seasons. While the idea of defending Dwight Howard with a frontcourt that features Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins in backup roles is not appealing, Boston has never feared a matchup with Orlando.
Getting up to No. 5 likely would set up a first-round matchup with the 76ers and a chance for redemption at losing the division crown. The problem with either of those scenarios: The Heat and Bulls would await in the next two rounds if top seeds won out.
Regardless of how it all plays out, the final month of the season won't lack for intrigue. What's clear is that the Celtics do not fear whatever hand they are dealt. Coach Doc Rivers continues to stress that he likes the mental toughness his team has shown in the second half of the season and cautions anyone about looking past a Boston team with plenty of postseason experience.
Rivers' buzzwords in the second half of the season have been "spirit" and "grind." He says his team can compete with anyone when it plays with the sort of intensity it has displayed in big games since the All-Star break. He also likes how his team has overcome a ridiculous run of health woes, refusing to lean on excuses.
So pick a seed, any seed. In the end, it probably won't matter to the Celtics. Nothing is going to come easy, but what has this season?