Daunting NBA playoff path taking shape for Celtics with standings so tight

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Chris Forsberg
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Forsberg: Daunting East playoff path taking shape for Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The middle of the Eastern Conference standings remain a jumbled mess but the Boston Celtics’ playoff path is slowly taking shape.

While teams in spots Nos. 4-8 in the East remain separated by just 2.5 games, projections have begun to heavily favor the Celtics and Hawks landing in a potential 4-5 matchup.

The Celtics, beset by health woes and inconsistencies, will have to grind a bit at the finish line to simply ensure finishing in a spot north of the play-in round. Still, barring a surge from a rival, Boston is well-positioned to stiff-arm those advances.

Celtics playoff picture: Where C's stand in tight East race

Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities report pegs the Celtics with a 68.9 percent chance at landing either the fourth or fifth spot in the East. The Hawks owning the head-to-head tie-breaker gives Atlanta a notable edge in pursuit of that 4 spot, which would deliver home-court advantage in Round 1. Over at FiveThirtyEight, their season projections likewise have Atlanta and Boston finishing tied at 40-32 overall, which would deliver Boston to the 5th seed. In both projections, Boston has a couple-game edge on any pursuits by the Heat or Knicks.

So here’s the reality for Boston: A roller coaster regular season has left them facing an uphill climb in the playoffs. There is the very real chance that Boston is going to have to go on the rod against a young upstart in Round 1 and a victory would then potentially require them to topple the East’s top 2 seeds -- likely Philadelphia and Brooklyn -- to reach the Finals.

Little about the way Boston has fared against elite competition will inspire much confidence in that path. The Celtics are left clinging to the strides made in recent weeks, at least when they’ve been a bit closer to full strength.

The good news for Boston is that there are few certainties in this weird COVID-impacted season and chaos could be king in the playoffs. Just about every contender is dealing with some sort of health issue and no team has definitively asserted itself as championship material.

Brad Stevens offers an update on Tristan and Jaylen's shoulder injuries

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Celtics coach Brad Stevens said last week that the team will prioritize health over seeding, even at the expense of dipping lower in the seedings and potentially further complicating a playoff path. This is the right approach because if the Celtics aren’t close to full strength, their playoff stay won’t be particularly long regardless of opponent quality.

The question, of course, is whether this team will ever get a chance to assess what it looks like at full health before the postseason arrives. Just when it felt like they were emerging from the injury-report woods, the team reverted back to its Hospital Celtics iteration on Monday night when it felt like half the team was on the injury report at various times.

The Celtics ultimately played without Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart -- both sidelined by non-COVID illness -- and should get them back after a rare two-day break in the schedule. Robert Williams could be back for Thursday’s visit from the Phoenix Suns after missing three games with left knee soreness. Stevens suggested Evan Fournier, sidelined by COVID during Boston’s recent surge, is likely doubtful for Thursday but could be back later this week if he passes necessary tests and feels good enough while ramping up.

That’s the good news. The bad news, Jaylen Brown and Tristan Thompson could be seen clutching their left shoulders throughout Monday’s loss to the Bulls. Jayson Tatum labored through 3-of-17 shooting, spoiling his first career triple-double, and had been on the injury report with an ankle impingement.

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That’s Boston’s season in a nutshell.

It would be nice if the Celtics could be near full strength for the upcoming double dip against the Suns and Nets. Maybe that would tell us a bit more about where they stand among some of the NBA elite that they’ve struggled against this season.

But there is the very real chance that, much like many recent playoff quests, this team will be left crossing its fingers on health and hoping to reach a potential we haven’t seen consistently during the season. That’s just the reality given the obstacles encountered this season.

A Celtics team that’s dealt with so much bad injury luck during the season is left hoping its fortunes will change when the games matter most. But the path ahead is daunting no matter who is available.