As the tie-breaker and Eastern Conference standings became clearer the past few weeks, there were really only two scenarios for the Celtics: 2nd or 3rd place in the conference. That alone is a masterful feat given how the first two months of the season went for the green. Most predicted they would finish between 4th and 7th in the conference and wouldn’t really be competing for the top 3 spots. After half the season, those predictions didn’t feel too far off as the Cs held a .500 team record. Luckily for the fans (and Ime Udoka), the Cs finished the season hotter than anyone in the NBA with a 51-31 overall record. Sitting with a few games remaining, the media surmised that the Cs had two choices: to win and take 2nd, potentially setting up a tough 1st round matchup with the 7-seed Brooklyn Nets (if they win the play-in game) or to tank and guarantee a 1st round series against the extremely beatable 6-seed Chicago Bulls. The Celtics chose to believe in themselves and pounded the Memphis Grizzlies in the final regular season game to secure 2nd in the Eastern Conference.
While I didn’t expect the Cs to tank, it’s not uncommon in the NBA for teams to rest stars knowing that the players on the court are going to have a tough time winning. Coaches hide behind the “rest day” or “maintenance day” mantra in those scenarios and while sometimes I’m sure it’s legitimate, it doesn’t feel great as a fan. Udoka, and probably Brad Stevens, made the right decision in my opinion to put their best team on the floor to try and win #51. Trying to control for a specific situation that isn’t even guaranteed is not a great approach.
You can run from teams, and they don’t even end up being there. What we concluded was: Let’s do what we do and let the chips fall where they may.Celtics Head Coach Ime Udoka before Sunday’s regular season finale
This Celtics team isn’t, and shouldn’t be, afraid of anyone. Yes, the Nets would be a tougher matchup than the Bulls, but if this C’s team is so worried about a first round opponent that they would consider tanking to move down, then they have already lost. The play on the court matches the aspirations of this group: a deep playoff run. They’ve beaten the best teams in the NBA during this 2nd half stretch and based on all the coach and player comments after the game, they don’t care who is in front of them. If they really want to be playing into June, then they will need to beat some of the best teams in the league and frankly a higher seed could be more beneficial down the road. An easier path isn’t necessarily the best path.
The Cs performance against the Grizzlies in game #82 was perfectly representative. Memphis is 2nd in the Western Conference and a formidable opponent, despite their make-shift lineup with nothing to play for. The green didn’t take them lightly and rode a 72-pt first half performance to a 139-110 victory. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 49 points, while Al Horford dropped 13 on 75% shooting (6-8) and Daniel Theis had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. The Cs were able to bring 9 guys off the bench, all playing 5+ minutes and contributing with points, which was exactly what you want to see in the final game of the season. The loss of Time Lord, aka Robert Williams III, for at least some part of the playoffs isn’t ideal, but there is a lot to like about this team. They have depth, veteran leaders and a heart to match.
Now that the regular season is over, the Celtics have a full week to get some rest and prep for their first round opponent. On Tuesday night, we’ll know if it’s the Brooklyn Nets or the Cleveland Cavaliers and that winner will come to the TD Garden next Sunday as the Celtics tip-off what they hope will be a long and fruitful playoff run. Regardless of the outcome, the team’s decision to go out and play hard rather than tank is the right move in my book.