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Celtics, Knicks Clinch First Round Matchup in NBA Playoffs

Paul Pierce returned to action on Saturday against the Orlando Magic to help the Celtics clinch the seventh seed and a first round playoff matchup with the New York Knicks. (AP Photo/John Raoux, courtesy of Yahoo Sports)

You can rest easy, Celtics fans. The Miami Heat won’t be waiting in the first round.

One night after sitting Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a 109-101 loss to the Heat, the Boston Celtics stars returned to trounce the Orlando Magic, 120-88, Saturday at the Amway Center. Courtney Lee led the Celtics with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, while Garnett was one rebound shy of a double-double in just 19 minutes (14 points, 9 boards) and Pierce filled the stat sheet with 12 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds. The Celtics’ 41st victory on the 2013 NBA season was “good” enough to clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

On Sunday, the Celtics found out who their first round opponent would be when the Atlantic Division champion New York Knicks (pause while I go wash my mouth out with soap) beat the Indiana Pacers 90-80 behind Carmelo Anthony‘s 25 points.

Probability pointed all along to a Knicks-Celtics showdown in the first round. But heading into Friday’s night’s slate of games, the Celtics still had the possibility of moving up in the Eastern Conference standings (however unlikely, especially with Garnett and Pierce getting DNPs). The sixth seed Chicago Bulls were 3 games ahead with four games left, while the fifth seed Atlanta Hawks were up 2.5 games in the standings with three to play. As it turned out, the Bulls would lose Friday and Saturday; a win against the Heat Friday night would have put the Celtics just one game back from the sixth seed with two games left on the schedule.

Meanwhile, the eight seed and a first round date with the Heat loomed large as the Celtics were only three games up on the Milwaukee Bucks, with four games remaining on the season for both squads. The Bucks had the added advantage of owning the tiebreaker by virtue of a 3-1 record against Boston during the regular season.

That made coach Doc Rivers’s decision to rest Garnett and Pierce on Friday all the more nerve-wracking, even if Milwaukee’s remaining schedule included bouts with Atlanta, the Denver Nuggets, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Luckily, though, the Bucks continued their season-ending slide by losing Friday and Saturday to extend their losing streak to four straight.

The Celtics will now be able to focus on resting its veteran core (and hopefully trying to avoid sinking back to .500 with two straight losses to close out the 2013 regular season) in preparation for continuing this season’s bitter grudge match against Anthony and the Knicks.

After winning the first game of the season series at Madison Square Garden, the Celtics went 0-3 against the Knicks the rest of the way, in addition to ceding the Atlantic Division title to the Knickerbockers. Now that their first round matchup is a certainty, Garnett, Pierce, and the rest of the Boston roster can look to exact some revenge by using New York as a stepping stone towards a rematch with the Heat in the playoffs.

After all, that’s really all we Celtics fans want. Just not in the first round, thanks.

About Nick Bohlen - @ndbohlen

Nick is an editor and regular contributor for the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox sections of SoB. (Despite growing up in Vermont, just a short drive from Canada, hockey never really caught on with him.) Follow him on twitter: @ndbohlen

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