Could the two-seed actually be better for the Celtics than #1?
When the Celtics play to their potential – as they have the past three games – they can beat any team in the NBA.
In fact, they should be favored against any opponent (yes, including the Bucks) and favorites to win it all.
Teams go through slumps and don’t look like themselves at times, but the ones that emerge better than before after rough patches are often the ones that last. This Celtics team is built to last.
So, regardless of which seed they earn in the playoffs, it’s fair to expect a deep postseason run and have a championship-or-bust mentality. But, at the same time, seeding is important, and these final regular-season games matter in determining the trajectory of the next few months.
The Celtics (52-23) care about the 1-seed, and it would be gratifying and significant to achieve it, yet would it actually yield the best path for the playoffs? Not necessarily.
The obvious perk of the 1-seed is home-court advantage, but there may not be many perks this particular year after that. If the Celtics land the 1-seed, they may have to face a path along the lines of the Bulls/Raptors, Cavaliers and Bucks.
While the Celtics could certainly escape unscathed, that’s far from an easy journey. The Celtics have a clear skill advantage over the Bulls and Raptors, but both teams are tough and have the size and length to make life difficult for Boston in stretches.
Next up would likely be the Cavaliers, who have taken three of four games from Boston in the regular season and have earned the right to be confident if the teams match up. Donovan Mitchell isn’t scared of anyone, including the Celtics. While Boston would be the Vegas favorite going in, and would probably prevail, it’s far from a guarantee.
That’s a lot of work just to get to the Bucks, then the Celtics have to beat them and win in the Finals. But wait a minute, what about the 2-seed. How does that path look? Might it be better?
It might. Obviously, a lot still has to shake out in the next two weeks, but as it stands now, the 2-seed could yield a much more favorable path. The Nets are slumping and have lost seven of 10. They’re currently tied with the Heat for sixth, and it’s seeming more and more likely that the Heat will leapfrog them and assume that spot.
If the Nets end up in the play-in tourney and win, that would put them in the No. 7 slot and match them up with the the No. 2 Celtics. Anything can happen, but it would be extremely surprising if the Nets won that series – yes, even after that March 3 debacle.
Then Boston would likely get the 76ers next, and we all know how that’s gone in recent years. It feels like Joel Embiid is so good that he’ll have to make it to the Finals at some point in his career, but until he reaches that point, it’s fair to assume the Celtics would have a great chance to win that one as well.
Then the Celtics would likely get the Bucks, but as they showed against the Heat last year, winning a Game 7 on the road in the Eastern Conference Finals is doable. Home-court advantage is nice, but the Celtics have the best road record in the NBA this season at 24-14.
Only one of the last five NBA champions was a 1-seed, and that was the Lakers in the bubble, which was a whole different experience. The others (No. 2 Warriors in 2018, No. 2 Raptors in 2019, No. 3 Bucks in 2021 and No. 3 Warriors in 2022 – sorry) all hit their stride when it mattered most.
Finishing second also keeps the Celtics humble and hungry and reminds them that there’s still work to do if they want to get to the top. Of course, they know that regardless, but seeing that No. 2 can sometimes pay dividends from a mental standpoint. It also takes just a smidgen of the outside pressure off – though just a smidgen.
No one’s saying the Celtics should tank for the 2-seed (or Victor Wembanyama), but it might actually help them out if they end up second.
As they showed last year when they embraced facing the Nets and proceeded to dismantle them, they’re not scared of anyone.
At the same time, as last year showed, sometimes two is better than one.