With a little more than 20 games remaining, the NBA is officially in the midst of its stretch run.
This is the time teams sink or swim. When the jockeying for playoff position begins heating up. Where the pretenders are separated from the contenders. But most importantly, this is the time teams start taking a good long look at the cards in their hand and either check or fold.
Do they tank for a better lottery pick or continue battling for an improbable playoff seed?
Should they begin resting key players for the postseason or attempt to lock up home-court advantage?
Would a change in game plan take them to the next level or is the current strategy sufficient enough?
These are just some of the questions teams will be asking themselves in the next coming weeks.
However, the Boston Celtics find themselves in a rather peculiar position.
At 33-27, the Celtics currently sit at the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. They are five games back of the New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division and only 1.5 games separate them from the Brooklyn Nets for the No. 4 seed.
So do they make a run at the Atlantic Division title and risk only securing a No. 4 or No. 5 seed—with a potential date with the Miami Heat looming in the second round—or do they play it safe and try and wrap up the No. 6 or No. 7 seed, pushing off a potential showdown with the Heat until the Conference Final?
It might seem like a foolish dilemma to present, but it’s one head coach Doc Rivers should seriously consider.
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Through 59 games, Miami are 45-14. Its won 16 straight and hasn’t dropped a game since Feb. 1.
The Heat are easily playing the best basketball in the league right now.
During the winning streak, LeBron James has averaged 28.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game. He’s also shot a staggering 60 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from three-point range.
At the same time, Dwyane Wade has averaged 24.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game during the stretch. He’s also shooting at a 55.5-percent clip from the field.
With just one of these players on the roster, Miami would still be an intimidating playoff foe. But with both in tow? Good luck.
This is a team that doesn’t put its guard down for a second. Whether it’s the San Antonio Spurs or the Charlotte Bobcats, you can expect the Heat to exert their 110 percent.
In fact, only two of their 14 losses this season have come against sub-.500 opponents—one in which Wade was sidelined.
Sure, Boston took these guys to seven games last season. But it also benefitted from having Rajon Rondo put together one of the best playoff series in franchise history—20.9 PPG, 11.3 APG, 6.9 RPG and 1.9 SPG.
The Celtics won’t have that this year.
In my opinion, it’s best to face these guys later rather than sooner.
The only question remains, how can Boston ensure this?
Option 1: Win the Division
While making up a five-game difference over 22 games may seem daunting, it’s not entirely impossible.
Only the Knicks—division leaders—and Nets—3.5 games back—stand in the Celtics’ way.
However, the way in which each team closes out the season will determine everything.
Here’s how it breaks down:
For Boston, the road ahead isn’t too difficult.
The Celtics do have a three-game road trip left from Mar. 20-Mar. 23. However, two of those opponents—the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks—are below .500. In fact, only four of their 11 road contests are against plus-.500 teams.
Not to mention, Boston will get a chance to make up some ground in the division with two games remaining against New York at the end of the month and a matchup against Brooklyn in April.
On paper, the Nets might look to have the easiest draw out of the three.
Brooklyn only has 21 games left, with only eight of those against plus-.500 opponents. However, 13 of its remaining games are on the road. That includes a massive eight-game road trip from Mar. 18-Apr. 3. In total, seven of the Net’s eight matchups against plus-.500 foes are on the road.
So much for that easy draw.
The Knicks have the toughest closing stretch by far.
Only 11 of New York’s 24 remaining games are at home. To make matters worse, it has a whopping 17 games left against plus-.500 teams. Starting tonight, the Knicks’ next seven contests are against such opponents. That includes a five-game road trip from Mar. 11-Mar. 18.
Throw in the mystery surrounding Carmelo Anthony’s injury and New York is prime picking for a late-season slip-up.
A division title is definitely there for the Celtics’ taking.
If they can handle their business, there’s a very strong chance that the other two will falter.
Maybe, even as soon as by the end of next week.
Option 2: Play It Safe and Wrap Up the No. 6 or No. 7 Seed
Yes, I know what you’re thinking.
Why would Boston want to tank some of their remaining games? How does that benefit the team heading into the postseason?
Well, tanking doesn’t benefit anyone. Easing the foot off the pedal a bit just might.
For starters, the Celtics currently hold a 2.5-game advantage over the No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks. Should anyone ever be intimidated by the Bucks? Thought so.
But most importantly, some of their key players could use some rest.
Specifically Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—35 and 36, respectively—who are running on tired legs. And lately, it’s starting to show.
Going into the season, the plan was to limit the duo’s playing time. Anywhere between 25 to 28 minutes a night would be perfect. It would not only help keep the two active, but also leave them well rested for a potential playoff run.
Instead, Pierce is logging in 33.9 minutes per night and Garnett is averaging 30.3.
You can blame a poor start and bad luck with injuries for that.
However, against the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 22, Garnett was given the opportunity to rest for the first time this season. In five games since, he’s averaged 15.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. The big man has looked a lot more refreshed on the floor and his performance has benefitted.
Pierce—who has played in all 60 games—could certainly use a night off himself.
With a rejuvenated Pierce and Garnett on the roster, there’s no telling how high Boston’s ceiling will be during the postseason.
But run them to the ground over the last month of the regular season, and risk burnout and a first-round exit.
It’s your choice.
Besides, I’d much rather take my chances against the Knicks or the Indiana Pacers than the possibility of a Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls.
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Both options offer up their own variety of pros and cons.
However, determining which option to choose depends on a couple other variables.
In my opinion, if I were the Celtics, I would closely follow the next couple of weeks.
Both New York and Brooklyn have a tough slate of games on hand. There’s a strong possibility that one, or even both, might drop several games during the stretch.
If that’s the case, Boston should fight tooth and nail for the division until the last second of the final game of the regular season.
On the other hand, if both the Knicks and Nets come out unscathed—paired with a couple losses by the Celtics—then it might be a good idea to take the opportunity to rest some players.
While living in fear of another squad is never the way a team would like to play out their season, sometimes it’s all about how the dominoes line up.
It could be the difference between a disappointing first or second-round exit and an improbable run to the NBA Finals. Just ask last year’s Boston team.
Better get your popcorn ready.