With only five regular season games left, the Boston Celtics have been the subject of much speculation regarding playoff seeds. Currently sitting at the seventh seed at 40-37, they would travel to New York to play the Knicks if the dance started tomorrow. It's “pick your poison” time.
Conspiracy theories linger on the Twittersphere, with some folks certain the Celtics purposely tanked five games in a row in late March, and eight of their last twelve total.
Their belief is that Boston wants the Milwaukee Bucks' eighth seed, two and a half games behind at 37-39. That way, the Celts would get the Miami Heat in the first round, since they'll likely have to go through them at some point anyway.
If the C's overcame the South Beach villains, many figure they would inherit their easier No. 1 seed schedule.
It didn't help that Kevin Garnett just missed two weeks, sitting out eight games with an inflamed ankle. And Paul Pierce was a healthy scratch for the April 1st road loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves, as well as the home defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 5th.
Sure, KG was in agony with what turned out to be bone spurs in his ankle. And “Truth” just welcomed a baby boy, Prince Paul Pierce. But to the theorists, any game without these two just provides more fodder.
Coach Doc Rivers finally shot down such concepts, stating that they absolutely “want to stay out of the eighth spot.”
"Listen, I'm not that dumb,” he explained. I'm not the brightest guy, but, come on. 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."
Tell Boston fans something they don't already know.
The Heat have taken two out of three gritty games against the C's this year, including a 17-point comeback on March 18th that pushed King James' men to a 23rd consecutive win.
Their second-half dominance has been the work of legends. Nobody wants to face the 60-16 squad's A-game.
That includes the Celtics, even though they still play Miami as tough as any team in the league.
But is a date with New York any better?
The Knicks have won their last three meetings with the Green, outscoring them by a collective margin of 297-260. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith have basically had their way, going off on offensive streaks that leave Boston in their dust.
New York's ability to penetrate and kick out to open three-point shooters has also hurt. They averaged 11 three-point shots over the four-game series, good for 38 percent despite hoisting an uncanny 29 per contest.
Boston, meanwhile, has only hit 27 percent from three, averaging 5.5 (out of 20.25 attempts) over the season series.
They haven't fared well in battles of the boards, either. The Knicks hold a 173-159 rebounding edge over the course of the year, while dominating the offensive glass 50-32.
If Boston gives open looks to the sixth-best three-point shooting team (.374 on the season), they must at least outplay them down low. Rebounding and second-chance opportunities prove too costly against athletic jump shooting teams like New York.
Perhaps some fans wonder if the Celtics can slip past the Atlanta Hawks (42-36, 1.5 games ahead of Boston) to gain the sixth seed.
But Atlanta faces the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors. Their only game against a team over the .500 mark will be in Madison Square Garden on the last game of the regular season—when New York will already have the No. 2 spot clinched.
That's not exactly a difficult schedule for the Hawks.
In all likelihood, the Hawks don't want to move down to the seventh seed to face New York in the first round. The Knicks have exposed Atlanta's defensive flaws at times this year, winning both regular season matchups.
The Pacers, meanwhile, likely hope to avoid a first-round meeting with the Celtics at all costs. Boston's good ball movement and hustle down low have pestered Frank Vogel's squad. They have outscored Indy 177-156 to take a 2-0 season series lead.
Comparatively, the Pacers beat Atlanta 114-103 on February 5th, and 100-94 on March 25th.
If Boston can somehow elevate to the sixth seed, they would find themselves in the best possible situation. They would still have to face the Knicks if they advanced—but that would be better than meeting them (or the Heat) in the first round.
C's fans must recognize that it will take Garnett's game legs more than a handful of late-season appearances to get close to 100 percent. And he would need to be at full strength against New York and Miami.
Indiana may possess the second-best defense in the league, and the best overall rebounding numbers. But they cannot keep up with elite playoff units offensively.
If Pierce and KG attain at least 70 percent strength by April 20—and guards Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee can disrupt Indy's backcourt like they did in the earlier matchups—Boston would cruise to a five or six-game playoff win.
Of course, these are all theories, as our Twitter friends know. All Celtics Nation can really do at this point is watch and wait.
Many fans hope the standings stay the same so Boston can grab a rematch with New York. Others fear an early exit regardless of the first-round opponent.
But will anybody be truly shocked if they once again squeak into the conference finals?