It has been difficult to discern whether the Celtics view the In-Season Tournament as a sideshow or a priority. Their words and actions have made it seem to fall somewhere in between.
But Tuesday’s game against the Bulls, their final group-stage matchup, could provide a good indicator of how much meaning the team has attached to the event. Not only do the Celtics need to win to have any hope of advancing, they need to win by a lot.
Will they pursue a blowout more aggressively than they would if there were no extra stakes? Will coach Joe Mazzulla leave in his starters late in a lopsided win just to keep piling on points?
“If we do get into a situation, I’ll make the best possible decision for our team at that time,” Mazzulla said. “But it’s more the process of winning that’s the most important thing.”
The Celtics’ chances of advancing to the quarterfinals took a significant hit Friday when the Magic walloped them by 17 points. They are 2-1 in the Eastern Conference’s Group C. The Magic have finished group play at 3-1, and their win over the Celtics gives them the head-to-head tiebreaker.
But if the Nets defeat the Raptors Tuesday, there would be a three-way tie at the top, with each team holding a 1-1 head-to-head record. The next tiebreak is point differential, and the Celtics have ground to make up.
Their ugly loss to Orlando left them even in points during group play. The Magic, meanwhile, are plus-22, and the Nets are plus-8. So if Brooklyn defeats Toronto, the Celtics would then need to outscore the Bulls by 23 points and have the Nets win by 15 or less to win the group.
Chicago is just 5-13, with four losses by 16 points or more, so it certainly is possible. But it also could be unsportsmanlike.
Last Friday, Bulls star DeMar DeRozan took issue with the Raptors’ attempt to pad their victory margin in the final minute. He was ejected after he began yelling at Toronto’s bench.
Celtics star Jayson Tatum said he felt somewhat similarly against Orlando, when the Magic were still looking to score near the end of a game that was essentially over.
“It’s all about respecting the game and respecting your opponents,” Tatum said. “So that part I’m really not a fan of, because if you were on the opposite end of that, you would feel some kind of way. So I understand. So, just try to win the game however we can.”
When Mazzulla was asked how he viewed the situation, he said that he did not have a strong opinion either way. Ultimately, though, he will be the one making the calls about how aggressively to push his starters and pursue a runaway win.
The Nets-Raptors game will tip off at the same time as Celtics-Bulls, so the Boston coaching staff could monitor that contest to see whether they even have a chance to win Group C.
But if the Nets lose, the Celtics could be in the hunt for the conference’s lone wild-card spot, which will go to the 3-1 second-place team with the best point differential.
The Pacers have clinched a quarterfinal berth by winning Group A with a 4-0 mark. The Bucks are in control of Group B, thanks to a 3-0 record and plus-39 differential.
The Heat, who are 2-1 in group play with a plus-11 differential, face Milwaukee Tuesday. And the Knicks (2-1, plus-18) play the Hornets. The Cavaliers (2-1, plus-6) are the lone Group A team truly still in the hunt for a wild-card spot.
If the Bucks defeat the Heat, the Hornets topple the Knicks, the Raptors beat the Nets, and the Hawks take down the Cavaliers, the Celtics would simply need to defeat the Bulls to win the wild card. That is an unlikely chain of events, of course, and it is more likely that the Celtics end up needing a major point-differential boost in a blowout of the Bulls.
If the Celtics are positioned to do just that, it could be fascinating to see how they handle it while factoring in the health of their stars and respect for their opponent.
“It’s kind of a strange situation, especially in the NBA,” Celtics center Luke Kornet said. “It’s not been a thing that’s really been a thought at all for years. I guess soccer maybe is more of that type stuff, I think? So it’s definitely, like, a weird core part of it.
“But I know we’re just trying to compete and get ready for Chicago. First and foremost, go and get the win. Then we’ll see how it goes from there just in terms of building our habits.
“I feel like we should try to win every game by 30 if we can or try to win every game, or if we’re down, try to make our way back.”