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Early Celtics’ Playoff Preview

Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett (Debby Wong/USA TODAY Sports)

Following a pair of road losses at New York and Minnesota, the Celtics’ chances of improving their playoff seeding faded to the point that they may find themselves in a battle for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Boston leads eighth-place Milwaukee by just 2.5 games, and the Bucks own the tie-breaker by virtue of having won the head-to-head series 3-1. The Celtics secured their playoff spot with a win in Detroit last night, but the battle for seeding rages on.

The Celtics, in turn, are 2 games behind the Chicago Bulls for sixth place, and will likely have one last chance to catch up as they take Cleveland and Washington at home over their next two games. The question now is whether they are really concerned about improving their seeding, particularly now that home-court advantage in the first round is out of the question. As has been the case in recent seasons, Doc Rivers seems more preoccupied with having his team healthy for when the playoffs start than about rising one or two places in the standings.

Kevin Garnett has missed the last six games with a left ankle injury that doesn’t appear to be too worrisome. Meanwhile, the players at the bottom of the rotation, like Shavlik Randolph and Terrence Williams, have seen their playing time increase well above their season average in recent games.

With that said, the Celtics are currently looking at one of three possible first-round opponents: Miami, if they drop to eight place, and either New York or Indiana, if they hold at seventh. The Knicks and Pacers both trail the Heat by 10.5 games and lead fourth-place Brooklyn by five.

Miami Heat

Record: 58-16 (1st in Southeast, clinched Eastern Conference)

Head-to-head series: MIA leads 2-1, 1 game remaining (4/12 @ MIA)

Given how dominant Miami has been over the past few weeks, including that franchise-record 27-game winning streak, it would seem that the Heat should be the opponent everybody wants to avoid. However, recent history might suggest the Celtics would rather face the Heat than the Knicks. Even during the Heat’s current era at the top of the NBA’s pecking order, going back to the 2010-11 season, meetings between the two teams have generally been very close. This season, two of the games they’ve played have been decided by just two points: 100-98 in Boston’s favor on January 27th (the first game after Rajon Rondo‘s injury) and 105-103 for the Heat on March 18th, in the midst of Miami’s streak.

The Heat would be heavily favored in a first-round matchup, since the Celtics have been eliminated by Miami in each of the last two seasons, but it’s worth remembering that last year’s Conference Finals came down to a deciding game 7, even though Boston was without Avery Bradley, and Ray Allen and Pierce were both playing injured. A rematch in this year’s playoffs would provide plenty of juicy storylines beyond the already traditional rivalry between them. The fact that Allen is now in a Heat uniform, as well as the recent war of words between team presidents Danny Ainge and Pat Riley provide new story-lines and additional intrigue to one of the NBA’s best rivalries in recent years.

The Heat is the favorite to repeat as NBA champion, and rightfully so, since LeBron James is having a monster season and they have at times appeared to be head and shoulders above the rest of the East. But the fact remains that the Celtics are probably the team that Miami wants to avoid in the postseason at all costs, and not the other way around.

New York Knicks

Record: 47-26 (1st in Atlantic)

Head-to-head series: NY won 3-1

The Knicks are just days away from winning the Atlantic Division for the first time since the 1993-94 season, ending the Celtics’ five-year reign, and for the first time in the 21st century they look like real championship contenders. Whether or not they could really beat the Heat in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but after two consecutive first-round exits, things are finally coming together for them. Carmelo Anthony is playing like a top-10 player in the league, proving that he can be the leader of an elite team, and they have successfully overcome the frequent injuries to Amar’e Stoudemire.

The Knicks have dominated the Celtics in their last two meetings, winning by a combined 34 points, and are on a nine-game win streak thanks to the great play of Anthony and a resurgent J. R. Smith. On the other hand, in their first game this season, on January 7th, Anthony notoriously followed Garnett out to the parking lot after some heated words were exchanged during the Celtics’ 102-96 win at Madison Square Garden. The oldest team in the league has gotten mixed results from its veteran players: while Jason Kidd and recent signing Kenyon Martin have contributed significantly, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace have all been non-factors.

The Knicks are probably going to need Anthony to play at an elite level throughout the playoffs if they are going to contend. Stoudemire’s return in time for the postseason is uncertain, leaving Martin and Tyson Chandler to man the frontcourt, and while Smith has proven himself in many games this season, he has hardly been a model of consistency throughout his career. If the Celtics and Knicks meet, expect the C’s to put up more of a fight than they did in the last two regular season matchups. But it’s no longer a given that Boston will come away with the win, as it did by sweeping the Knicks in 2011. New York finally has the pieces to advance past the first round for the first time since the year 2000.

Indiana Pacers

Record: 48-27 (1st in Central)

Head-to-head series: BOS leads 2-0, 1 game remaining (4/16 @ BOS)

The Pacers are no longer creeping up on anyone in the East. In the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Pacers believe they are close to regaining the elite status of the Reggie Miller years. Led by first-time All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate Paul George and big men Roy Hibbert and David West, Indiana is about to clinch its first division title since 2004. However, the Pacers got some bad news last week, as Danny Granger had to undergo knee surgery and is out for the season, just five games after returning from an injury.

In any case, Indiana has gotten this far largely without Granger, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t go any further. Their lack of playoff experience hindered them the last two seasons, but now they could be primed for a breakout. If they face the Celtics, though, they may find their season coming to a disappointing early end. In the teams’ first meeting, with Rondo still in the Boston lineup, the C’s cruised to a 94-75 home win on January 4th. More recently, on March 6th, Garnett had a double-double in an two-point victory in Indianapolis. They will meet again on April 16th, in what will likely be a meaningless game.

As much as many Celtics fans would like to see them take on the Heat, and although we know that Pierce, Garnett and company will be up to the task if it comes to that, the truth is that Boston’s best chance of reaching the conference semifinals probably involves meeting the Pacers in the first round. While having everybody healthy and well-rested for the playoffs should be the priority over the next couple of weeks, winning a few games and securing the seventh seed might not be a bad idea either.

About Nick García - @N_A_Garcia

Nick is the Celtics and college sports editor at Sports of Boston. He writes about basketball, football and anything else that comes his way. Follow him on Twitter @N_A_Garcia

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