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Celtics’ biggest priority should be keeping No. 2 seeds

NBA playoff picture: Why no. 2 seed is an ideal spot for Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

We appreciate Derrick White insisting that seeding “doesn’t matter.” It’s a good thing that the Boston Celtics aren’t fixated on whether they land the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

But for those outside the locker room, it’s fun to plot out their playoff journey to find the path of least resistance. And that path just might come from the No. 2 seeds.

We’ll explain — but first, here’s an updated look at the East standings with just nine games remaining in the regular season.

Eastern Conference Standings (as of March 24)

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (52-20)

  2. Boston Celtics (50-23) — 2.5 games back

  3. Philadelphia 76ers (49-23) — 3.0 GB

  4. Cleveland Cavaliers (47-28) — 6.5 GB

  5. New York Knicks (42-33) — 11.5 GB

  6. Miami Heat (40-34) — 13.0 GB

  7. Brooklyn Nets (39-34) — 13.5 GB

  8. Atlanta Hawks (36-37) — 16.5 GB

  9. Toronto Raptors (35-38) — 17.5 GB

  10. Chicago Bulls (34-38) — 18.0 GB

It’s hard to see the Celtics catching the Bucks for the No. 1 seed. They’d need to beat Milwaukee head-to-head on March 30 and have the Bucks drop two more of their final 10 games after losing just three games since Jan. 21.

But if Boston can fend off Philly to secure the No. 2 seed, its playoff path looks relatively favorable. Here’s a look at that path:

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Celtics as no. 2 seeds

  • Round 1 matchup: No. 7 seed, winner of play-in tournament (Nets, Hawks, Raptors or Bulls)

  • Round 2 matchup: Winner of 3-6 matchup (Sixers or Heat)

The Celtics are a combined 5-0 against the Nets and Hawks this season, with all of those wins by double digits. They’re also 2-0 against the Raptors, and while they’ve dropped two of four to Chicago, it’s hard to see the Bulls emerging out of the play-in tournament anyway.

If higher seeds advance in the first round, the Celtics would get the Sixers in Round 2. While Philly has been on a tear down the stretch, Boston is a perfect 3-0 against the Sixers to date and has won four straight playoff series against its Eastern rival dating to 1982.

Compare that path to the path from No. 3 spot…

Celtics as no. 3 seeds

This isn’t the same Heat team that took Boston to Game 7 of the East Finals last year, but they’ve won four of five and are rounding into form entering the playoffs. The Celtics went 2-2 against Miami this season and at the very least would get a battle in the first round if they drew Erik Spoelstra’s club.

Assuming higher seeds advance, the C’s would still draw Philly in Round 2 but wouldn’t have home-court advantage for that series. They’d be in the same situation as last season’s Bucks, who dipped to the No. 3 seed behind Boston, then lost Game 7 of the second round to the No. 2 Celtics at TD Garden.

If the Bucks maintain the No. 1 seed and advance to the East Finals, they’d be difficult to beat four out of seven times, especially on the road in a potential Game 7. But the No. 2 seed at least gives the Celtics the best chance to set up another Boston-Milwaukee showdown.