Celtics Trending Up in Tight Playoff Picture

BOSTON – There are about five and a half weeks remaining in the NBA’s regular season and there is a heck of a lot that remains undecided. The playoff standings in both conferences could see a major overhaul during the final 20-or-so games left on each team’s schedule.

In truth, there are really only two things that have been decided for the 2013 NBA Playoffs. First, the streaking Miami Heat are going to be the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s essentially set in stone. Secondly, the eight Eastern Conference teams currently slated to make the playoffs are probably going to make it into the tournament. Toronto and Philadelphia had an opportunity to challenge for the East’s eighth seed but both have fallen out of contention over the past few weeks.

Out in the Western Conference, literally nothing has been decided as of March 8. The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are likely going to be fighting for the top seed in the West until the final days of the season. The rest of the West is fighting for seeding, and the Los Angeles Lakers are making a strong push to overtake the Jazz, Rockets or Warriors as one of the West’s eight playoff teams.

Although the West has more to be decided over the final quarter of the season, our attention is squarely on the East, where the Boston Celtics are attempting to make a surge of their own.

Many basketball fans were wondering in early January whether the Celtics would even make the playoffs this season, let alone make a run to a high seed and possibly a conference championship. They were just 14-17 on the season after falling to the Grizzlies on Jan. 2. However, Boston has since turned things around and gone 13-4 over the course of the past six weeks. That stretch has positioned Boston to battle for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Celtics are currently slotted as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Their hot streak has solidified them as a playoff team and has brought them to within 1.5 games of the Brooklyn Nets, who are currently in possession of the fourth seed in the East. Brooklyn (fourth), Atlanta (fifth), Chicago (sixth) and Boston (seventh) are all within 1.5 games of each other in the standings.

Whichever team comes out of that group with the best record at the end of the regular season is highly likely to own home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The only situation in which that wouldn’t be the case is if the fourth-seeded team happens to be a divisional winner (which is guaranteed a top-four seed despite its record) and the fifth-seeded team has a better record. We saw this occur last season when the fourth-seeded Celtics, who won the Atlantic Division, opened up the playoffs on the road in Atlanta against the fifth-seeded Hawks, who owned a better record.

With that being said, this season’s playoff outlook tells us that such a situation is highly unlikely to take place this season. The probability of the fourth seed hosting Game 1 of its playoff run is very, very high, which is why these final weeks of the season are so critical.

Boston may want and need that home court advantage more so than any other team in the East. It has struggled mightily on the road this season, having tallied a woeful 12-18 record away from TD Garden. The Pacers, Hawks and Bucks also have sub-.500 records on the road this season, but the Celtics are by far the worst road team of the bunch.

The good news for Boston is that it is in prime position to gain home court advantage. It has 22 games remaining on the schedule and, as stated earlier, the C’s are only 1.5 games out of that coveted fourth seed. Eight of their final 22 games of the season are against teams that are currently seeded ahead of them in the playoff picture. So while the schedule is difficult, Boston can gain ground on the teams it is chasing.

One of those teams is Atlanta, which visits Boston tonight. The Celtics can leapfrog the Hawks in the standings with a victory in TD Garden. If that takes place and the Bulls happen to fall to the Jazz tonight in Chicago, Boston would be in possession of the fifth seed when it wakes up Saturday morning.

There are plenty of variables that need to fall into place to make that happen, but that’s the story of this season’s playoff picture. Teams are going to move up and down in the standings just about every day from here on out. The question in Boston is whether the Celtics can make enough moves up the standings to snag home court advantage in the first round.