Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics: A pivotal week against West opponents could provide clarity to East playoff picture

Earlier in the season, many would have assumed that the Eastern Conference playoff picture would have sorted itself out by this point.

It hasn't.

With fewer than 20 games remaining on the schedule, only 1.5 games separate the No. 4 seed and No. 8 seed in the East. The Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are having their own three-way brawl to organize the top three seeds while five teams fight for the final opening for home court advantage in the first round.

Along with the highly coveted No. 4 seed that would help a team avoid any of the three heavyweights until the Conference Semifinals, there are two additional seeds available - Nos. 5 and 6 - that are equally as important to avoid having to enter the Play-In Tournament to solidify a spot in the postseason.

Eastern Conference standings (April 13, 2021)
Seed Team Record Win Pct. Games Back (from No.4)
4. Hawks 29-25 .537 -
5. Heat 28-25 .528 0.5
T-6. Hornets 27-25 .519 1.0
T-6. Celtics 28-26 .519 1.0
8. Knicks 28-27 .509 1.5
9. Pacers 25-27 .481 2.0

MORE: How Monday's results impacted the playoff picture

Among that pack of teams is the Boston Celtics, whose season has been a rollercoaster. At times, the Celtics have looked like the team that came two wins away from returning to the NBA Finals last season with their goals set to get back to that stage. Other times, they've looked like a Play-In team destined for a first-round playoff exit.

But it's hard to find continuity or consistency with how frequently they have had to maneuver absences due to the league's health and safety protocols. According to Fansure's COVID-19 dashboard, the Celtics have lost more man-games to the league's health and safety protocols (137 and counting) than any other team. That's nearly 20 more games (!) than the next-closest team, the Dallas Mavericks (118 man-games missed).

Boston's trade deadline acquisition Evan Fournier is the latest (and only) player on the roster to be dealing with health and safety protocols, only appearing in four of 10 possible games since joining the team.

And yet, even without him, the Celtics have still found a way to win four for their last five games to put themselves one game back from the fourth-place Atlanta Hawks ahead of one of their toughest stretches of the season. Starting Tuesday, Boston has three-straight nationally televised games against feisty Western Conference opponents - the Portland Trail Blazers (April 13), Los Angeles Lakers (April 15) and Golden State Warriors (April 17).

The first two games are on the road, a trip that also included a major win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday. Fournier did not travel with the team, so they will be without their newest life-line for at least another two games.

Can Boston still keep this momentum going against Western Conference opponents that are also clawing for wins and jockeying for position?

Here comes Jayson Tatum

The 23-year-old superstar was very open about how hard he was hit by the effects of the coronavirus back in January, but he appears to be getting comfortable on the court again.

There's no better evidence of that than his career-high 53-point performance in Boston's overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves last weekend, 35 of which came in the second half and overtime.

Tatum has increased his field goal percentage every month since returning from COVID-19, and his 3-point percentage is not too far behind.

Jayson Tatum's shooting percentages (2020-21 season)
Month FG% 3P%
February .397 .316
March .481 .398
April .500 .393

Averaging 31.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists, Tatum is the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week. The Celtics will need him and co-star Jaylen Brown - who still hasn't cooled off, averaging 24.3 points per game on nearly 50.0 percent shooting from the field and 40.0 percent from 3-point range on the season - to maintain their high level of play to get past the likes of Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry.

Defence, defence, defence

The Celtics have typically been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA under head coach Brad Stevens, but defence has been their most glaring issue for the majority of this season. According to NBA.com, from the start of the season in December until the end of March, Boston had a defensive rating of 112.2, ranking bottom 10 in the league.

Since the calendar flipped to April, the Celtics have looked revitalized on that side of the ball. Although it's a small sample size, the Celtics own a defensive rating of 105.3 in the six games they have played in April, fifth-best in the NBA.

It took two-time All-Defensive Team member Marcus Smart some time to get back into a rhythm after missing the entire month of February and the beginning of March due to a calf injury, but now that he's back to full strength, he's had a massive impact on his team's defence trending back in the right direction. Tristan Thompson's physical presence in the paint has also played a role, as has the return of former lottery pick Romeo Langford, a 6-foot-4 lengthy and versatile forward who has been a jack-of-all-trades for Boston on the defensive end since returning to the lineup.

If the Celtics are going to make a run at the No. 4 seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, it's going to start on the defensive end against these high-powered Western Conference offences.

MORE: NBA.com staff predicts how playoff race will shape out

Fourth quarter heroics

It appears that playing in a lot of close games - the most in the NBA, actually - is starting to pay dividends for Boston.

The Celtics have struggled mightily in "clutch" games, described as the last five minutes of a five-point game, for much of the season. From the start of the season in December until the end of March, they were a terrible 11-21 in those situations, giving them a win percentage of .344, fourth-worst in the league.

On this recent three-game winning streak, Boston trailed entering the fourth quarter in all three contests. Three come-from-behind victories is one way to spark some relentlessness in a team, and fourth-quarter success helps build up some confidence to keep the faith, too.

According to play-by-play announcer Sean Grande, the Celtics entered their contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 25 with the third-worst net rating in the NBA in the fourth quarter. Since that comeback win, they have been the best fourth-quarter team in the league by a longshot, winning the frame in each of their past nine games.

Those three keys - Tatum's re-emergence, hard-nosed defence and clutch fourth quarter play - would be the difference in helping Boston separate itself from the pack in the East if it is going to work its way out of the Play-In Tournament range and into a solidified playoff spot.

Keep an eye on those things when you're watching them scrap for wins on national television this week in trying to knock off the Blazers, Lakers and Warriors.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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