The Boston Celtics enter tonight’s game at Atlanta having clinched another Atlantic Division title, locked into the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed in the playoffs. While they are not guaranteed to have home-court advantage in the first round, that's not really of importance to this veteran group.
With nothing to play for in the final three regular-season games, Doc Rivers should send out his top four players no more than is absolutely necessary to ensure that they don’t enter the playoffs completely rusty.
Rajon Rondo missed Boston’s Wednesday night victory over Orlando with a back injury that he sustained in Tuesday’s loss against New York Knicks" href="http://bleacherreport.com/new-york-knicks">New York. The Celtics will go nowhere without the NBA’s leading assist man at full strength.
Ray Allen has also missed a number of games over the past few weeks with a nagging ankle injury. However, the emergence of second-year guard Avery Bradley has allowed the league’s career leader in three-pointers to ease his way back, and transition into a role as Boston’s sixth man once he returned to the lineup.
The reduced role and minutes should make Allen more effective when he’s on the floor, but he’ll need to be close to 100 percent when he is on the court if the Celtics are to have a realistic shot at winning the East.
Both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce appear to have turned the clock back with their stellar post-All-Star play. A few days of rest would help ensure they carry that revival into the postseason.
With the No. 3 seed out of reach, the Celtics won’t have the good fortune of matching up with the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic. They’ll instead have a much tougher test against tonight’s foe, the Hawks.
Atlanta may not be a threat to win the Eastern Conference, but this is a playoff-tested group that has advanced past the first round in each of the past two seasons. There’s no reason to believe that this series will go less than six games, if not the full seven.
Boston has arguably been the best team in the East since the All-Star break, but their sluggish start to the season means they’ll likely have to beat both the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls on the road to the NBA Finals. What's more, they must do it without the benefit of home-court advantage. Injuries have cost the Celtics some of their depth, meaning their top seven players will need to be as fresh as possible if they hope to have an extended run.
The Celtics have enough collective playoff experience that they will have no trouble adjusting to the increased intensity and pressure that comes with postseason play. However, the oldest team in the Eastern Conference playoff race will need to be at full strength to upset the favored Bulls and Heat en route to a third NBA Finals appearance in the past five seasons.