Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Where will the Celtics finish in the East?
By Chris Forsberg
The Boston Celtics proved last season that a team's regular-season record and playoff seeding are not always foolproof indicators of postseason success. Boston sleepwalked through the final four months of the 2009-10 season, earned the lowest possible seed for a division champion and still came six minutes shy of winning an NBA title.
In Monday's debut of the Celtics Summer Forecast, our panel of experts predicted a four-win increase for Boston next season. Now, we ponder whether that will help the team improve upon the fourth seed it obtained last season.
Totaling up the responses, our scratchpad looked a bit like a scorecard from a solid stretch at the local Par 3 golf course (3, 2, 3, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 3, 2).
Our 18 experts (yes, we grew overnight) from eight Boston basketball blogs -- CelticsHub, Red's Army, CelticsBlog, Celtics Town, North Station Sports, Gino's Jungle, Celtics Stuff Live and Celtics 24/7 -- were fairly evenly split on whether the Celtics would land the No. 2 or 3 seed, with a slight edge going to the third spot. No one picked the Green to leap higher than No. 2 or fall lower than No. 4.
Our panel almost uniformly agreed that the Heat would live up to the hype and secure the No. 1 seed, while many thought the Magic would end up at No. 2. As John Karalis from Red's Army summed it up, "Miami will be the clear No. 1 seed; Orlando is a cohesive-enough unit to win 60 games and should be No. 2. Then it's a little bit of a crapshoot."
Some wondered if the beefed-up Chicago Bulls could leap ahead of Boston, while most believed the Atlanta Hawks would take a step backward after securing the No. 3 seed last season.
Based on ESPN.com's Summer Forecast for the Eastern Conference standings, 93 national experts also pegged Boston as the No. 3 seed -- barely, edging the Bulls by a game for that spot. And only 10 of the 93 national panelists picked the Celtics to win the East.
Here's a snapshot of how local writers felt:
On Monday, we noted the Green could easily challenge for 60 wins (settling for a prediction of 56 victories overall) and we think that number will put Boston in position to net the No. 2 seed in the East. Boston's biggest advantage is a weak Atlantic Division, which should help the Green stockpile wins. Meanwhile, Miami, Orlando and Atlanta must battle in a rigid Southeast Division that also includes a fourth playoff team in Charlotte and an upstart Washington Wizards squad that should get an immediate spark from rookie John Wall. Even Chicago has to keep an eye on Milwaukee in the Central Division, all of which should keep the win totals in the other divisions down. Health will dictate whether Boston can keep its foot on the accelerator long enough to stay in front of Orlando by season's end, but it seems only appropriate if Miami and Boston end up with the top seeds and take care of business from there.
The Celtics saw firsthand the importance of seeding and home-court advantage last season in the playoffs. Though they managed to make it through Cleveland and Orlando without it, the lack of a home turf undoubtedly burned the team in the NBA Finals as they dropped Games 6 and 7 to the Lakers in Los Angeles. Obviously, there were other factors in play there, (fatigue, Kendrick Perkins' injury) but you can't tell me home court wouldn't have made a major difference in those final two games. With an improved Eastern Conference, any edge the C's can get for the postseason this upcoming season will be critical, and that includes the right to a home-court advantage for at least a couple of series in the playoffs. The team will be motivated to bring home just enough wins (55) to gain a high seed (2), positioning itself just ahead of a tight race between its Eastern opponents by the close of the regular season. That improved balance in the conference will make next year's East a likely bet to resemble the crowded Western Conference in the standings, where only two games separated the No. 2 and 5 seeds at the end of 2009-10 season.
Although I'm not 100 percent sold on the Heat going the distance, I do think that they'll finish with the best record in the league. Will they break the 1995-96 Bulls' mark of 72 wins? I'd bet against it. But I can see the Heat winning about 66-67 games. I think it will be a close battle for second between the Celtics and Magic, but I'll give the edge to the C's because I think they did more to improve themselves this year than the Magic did. Speaking of improvements, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Last season's playoff teams will do battle with each other this season, as the Nos. 2-8 seeds look really strong (sorry Cleveland), while the teams that missed the playoffs will get feasted upon. Last season in the West, Oklahoma City finished with a 50-32 record -- good for the No. 8 seed. Expect a similar eighth-seed record in the East this season.
Although the East got collectively better overall (Miami, Chicago, Milwaukee), the Celtics have two things in their favor. 1) They're in the Atlantic Division, which their magic number to clinch is zero, right now. 2) With the Superfriends forming in Miami, Orlando's stroll to a Southeast Division title is not as easy now. Factor in that the Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats and an improved Wizards team all reside in that division, I can see Miami and Orlando having a bigger battle for the division title and a higher seed. With that being said, I see the Celtics ending up as the No. 2 seed. Remember, it's not essential that they have home-court advantage in the playoffs as last season proved, but last season was a huge NBA anomaly. It rarely happens that a lower seed advances as far as the Celtics did and it's usually not a wise approach to take.
The Celtics will probably grab the No. 4 seed behind a very good Chicago team that added Carlos Boozer to a starting five that includes Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Like last season, Boston will probably post a lot of L's down the stretch trying to figure out playoff rotations and getting the starters max rest before a playoff run.
The Celtics will finish third in the East, behind only Orlando and Miami. Integrating the O'Neals -- Jermaine and Shaquille -- into the lineup, while also dealing with the loss of Kendrick Perkins, will cause the Celtics to get off to a relatively slow start compared to the smoking starts to the last three seasons. Outside of the games played in a (once again) easy Atlantic Division, the Celtics have a difficult schedule that will prevent them from competing for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. It also remains to be seen how well the Celtics will defend without Perkins and after the loss of defensive guru Tom Thibodeau. Ultimately, I think the Celtics' offense will improve from last season, while their defense will fall slightly back to the pack. The Celtics will compete with Thibodeau's new team, the Bulls, for the third seed, eventually edging them out by a game or two.
The Celtics will have little competition in the Atlantic Division this season, which should make for a fairly safe run through much of the regular season. However, Doc Rivers will take numerous attempts to get rest for his Big Three, as he did this past season, but the absurd spate of injuries will not be duplicated and thus a five-win uptick and the No. 2 seed will result.
Once again this coming season, I believe the Celtics will put much of their focus on the postseason, even if that means sacrificing a few games during the regular season. The Heat and Magic will most likely top the Eastern Conference, while the Celtics, Hawks and Bulls fight for the third spot.
I went back and forth on this one. What I do know is that the Miami Heat will be the No. 1 seed (don't hate me). It will then come down to Orlando and Boston. The Celtics are the better team, but as we saw last season, they aren't the most motivated regular-season squad. Jay King hit the nail on the head in Monday's win prediction: The Celtics really don't care about the regular season. They understand that, no matter where they finish, they will still have to face the best teams in the playoffs. The order in which they beat them really isn't important. Orlando's youth and talent will prevail in the first 82 games, with Boston settling for the No. 3 seed. But after that, watch out for the Celtics.
What's your take? Leave your Celtics' seeding prediction in the comments section. Coming Wednesday: How will the Celtics' 2010-11 season end?