As the final week of the season approaches, the Celtics have several important games and a variety of potential outcomes still in play.
After their early-season struggles and their midseason lulls, the Celtics have put themselves in a difficult position. They currently hold the No. 6 seed, but they could easily fall back out of it with games against the Miami Heat and New York Knicks remaining. They could also still climb as high as the No. 4 seed with a series of wins and a little help from other teams around the league.
Here’s a closer look at the full picture.
Eastern Conference standings
The Celtics won’t be able to catch the Bucks, Nets, or Sixers at this stage, so we will start at No. 4.
No. 4: Knicks – 37-29
No. 5: Hawks – 37-31 (1 game back)
No. 6: Celtics – 35-31 (2 games back)
No. 7: Heat – 35-31 (2 games back, Celtics own tiebreaker)
No. 8: Hornets – 32-35 (5.5 games back)
The remaining games
Chicago: The Celtics need to win this one. Zach LaVine is back from his COVID absence and Nikola Vucevic tortures the Celtics whenever they face him, but they need wins and Chicago isn’t very good.
Miami (twice): These back-to-back games could determine whether the Celtics can put some distance between themselves and the play-in. If the Celtics split, they claim the tiebreaker over Miami.
Cleveland: The Celtics can’t take themselves particularly seriously as a contender for the 4-5 series if they lose this one.
Minnesota: See Cleveland.
New York: The implications for the final game of the season could be enormous.
The No. 4 seed
THE STAKES: The Celtics could snag home-court advantage, avoid a first-round matchup with the Bucks-Sixers-Nets trio and give themselves a chance to build a little momentum before likely taking on the Sixers in round two.
ANALYSIS: While this outcome remains unlikely, a road still exists for the Celtics.
The Knicks’ remaining schedule is vicious. They have three games remaining on a tough West Coast road trip against the Suns, Clippers, and Lakers, all of whom have plenty of motivation to win. Even their easiest games remaining are the Spurs and Hornets, who are also playing for seeding.
The Hawks are just a game ahead of the Celtics and tied in the loss column. The Hawks have the tiebreaker over the Celtics and will maintain it, but one game certainly isn’t insurmountable. The only problem: Atlanta’s schedule is soft — two games against the Wizards and one each against the Rockets and Magic.
The Rockets and Magic are essentially guaranteed victories for Atlanta. The Celtics would need to get very hot, and they would need the Wizards to win at least one (and maybe two) of their Atlanta matchups.
The No. 5 seed
THE STAKES: Home-court advantage matters to an extent — the Celtics expect to have up to 25 percent of the TD Garden full for the playoffs — but getting the fifth seed and avoiding the East’s best would be a big accomplishment.
ANALYSIS: This is a more realistic best-case scenario for the Celtics. The Hawks’ tiebreaker will be tough to overcome, but the Knicks’ schedule is so unfriendly that a good stretch by the Celtics could push them ahead. If they split with the Heat and take care of business against the bad teams on their schedule, and the Celtics could find themselves with a chance to play their way into the fifth seed on the last night of the season.
The No. 6 seed
THE STAKES: The Celtics’ primary opponent here is likely Miami. The Heat have two near-guaranteed wins on their schedule against the Pistons and the Timberwolves, but games against the Sixers and Bucks won’t be easy. All the Celtics likely need to secure No. 6 is a decent stretch and one win out of two against the Heat.
ANALYSIS: Avoiding the play-in game is something, but can the Celtics beat one of the East’s top teams in the first round? Building a little momentum by winning a 4-5 matchup would inspire a lot more confidence than simply maintaining the status quo.
The No. 7 seed
THE STAKES: If the Celtics go cold, they could end up here — especially if they lose twice to the Heat.
ANALYSIS: The Celtics need to avoid this result. They would be at risk of sliding out of the playoffs entirely with a loss to the Hornets (which they have done) and a loss to the Wizards (which they have also done) or the Pacers (which they have also done). Even a win in the play-in game would only net them a difficult matchup without any additional rest.
The Celtics are 12-6 since the start of April and have looked like a much more coherent team since the trade deadline. Danny Ainge said he believes there is “hope and potential, even in this year’s playoffs” for the Celtics, despite their struggles throughout the season.
Still, even during that 12-6 stretch, the Celtics have dropped some disappointing losses including an inexcusable one to the Oklahoma City Thunder. How the Celtics close the season might be a preview of how strong they will look in the postseason.