BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers seemed surprised that there would even be any debate about where his team might want to land in the Eastern Conference playoffs seedings. Seventh or eighth? Duh, that's an easy answer.
"I know we are in the seventh spot and I know we want to stay out of the eighth spot," said Rivers, confirming for the first time what many have long suspected: The Celtics would prefer to avoid the top-seeded Miami Heat for as long as possible in hopes of using early rounds to rebuild some injury-depleted continuity and restore the team's confidence amid late-season stumbles.
"Listen, I'm not that dumb. I'm not the brightest guy, but, come on," added Rivers. "No matter who we play, we're going to play a tough team. It's going to be New York, Indiana or Miami. There's no cakewalks for us. It's going to be hard."
Simply getting to the finish line of the 2012-13 regular season is proving to be daunting. On Friday, the Celtics rested Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce -- two healthy ankles between them -- and watched the lottery-bound Cleveland Cavaliers snap a 10-game losing streak with a 97-91 triumph at TD Garden.
Tristan Thompson became the latest opposing big man to play like an All-Star, registering a pair of career highs with 29 points and 17 rebounds as Cleveland bigs frolicked about without Garnett monitoring the halls.
Rivers said he'd much prefer to have Garnett and Pierce on the floor, but Boston's veteran duo is simply not ready and he will not jeopardize their long-term health in fear of the small chance of slipping to that eighth seed.
Fortunately for Boston, the Milwaukee Bucks, 4-10 over their past 14 games, have been unable to make up ground on the Celtics. With the Bucks falling to New York on Friday night, Boston maintained a 2½-game cushion with six games to go on the Celtics' schedule.
Boston is focused on that seventh seed, which, at the moment, would produce a matchup with the second-seeded New York Knicks, a squad that has won 11 in a row (beating Boston twice in that span) and owns a 1½-game edge over the Indiana Pacers. Ideal? No, but seventh-seeded beggars can't be choosers. The path of least resistance is whichever one arrives in South Beach last.
Boston hopes the impending return of Pierce and Garnett -- something that could happen as early as Sunday's visit from the Washington Wizards -- will buck its recent trend of inconsistent basketball. The Celtics desperately want to play better before the postseason tips.
"If you fall to the eighth [seed], it means you've been losing," said Jason Terry. "We want to go into the playoffs on a winning note, feeling good about ourselves and our game. Regardless of who we play, we have to be healthy, mentally and physically, going into the playoffs."
Does Terry have a preference on when the Celtics might see the Heat?
"I don't care when we play them. We could play them in the summer league, rec league, it don't matter," said Terry. "That's just a special rivalry for me and it should be for everybody else in this locker room. At one point or another, if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll play them, hopefully."
This maddening stretch without Garnett has produced a few silver linings. Jeff Green has kicked down the door to the starting lineup, while Shavlik Randolph is making a strong case to be a rotation big (so long as he can avoid the foul trouble that ruined maybe his best night as a pro on Friday).
But these Celtics would probably prefer to just hit the fast-forward button at this point. Rivers got a knot in his stomach when he saw Avery Bradley head to the locker room with trainer Ed Lacerte in tow in the fourth quarter Friday (Kyrie Irving, of all people, delivered the "good" news that he had simply elbowed Bradley, leaving him with a bruised collarbone; that was still a far less daunting diagnosis than any recurrence of Bradley's shoulder woes).
That's Boston's season in a nutshell: Good news is the lesser of two evils. And little about this season has been ideal, from the early-season struggles, to the rash of midseason injuries that took away point guard Rajon Rondo and rookie big man Jared Sullinger, and now this crawl to the finish line.
There's a line of thinking that suggests Boston should just slip to the No. 8 seed and give Miami its best punch out of the gates. If that happens, Rivers noted, his team will be ready. But if the Celtics have a choice, the decision is simple: Seventh seed and hope the only time they see the Heat is if they are fighting for a spot in the NBA Finals.