The Celtics insisted that there was no celebration Sunday night, after a win over Miami moved Boston into a tie for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“Mostly (we celebrated) the win, it was a big game for us,” forward Jae Crowder said. “We knew those guys would come in and play hard. Pretty much celebrating the win more than the seeding.”
Surely, they watched Monday night as the Cavaliers were picked apart by the Spurs, which pushed the Celtics into the top seed in the East. But even that was unlikely to move Boston off its professed lack of concern about postseason seeding.
“We hear it, but that wasn’t our focus,” guard Marcus Smart said. “Our focus was to come in and get another game, get that momentum going before we start the playoffs.”
All that is nonsense, of course. There is a pervasive nonchalance about earning the top seed in the East, as if it were some useless prize like a participant medal, or an ESPY. There’s some cause for that. Not since 2008 have the top seeds in both conferences reached the NBA Finals, and in the eight years since, only six of 16 Finals teams were No. 1 seeds in the regular season.
That explains why the top seed in the East is not all that big of a deal in Cleveland. The Cavs had the top seed last year and won the championship, but in the six-year stretch of LeBron James leading teams to the Finals (three in Miami, three in Cleveland), he has been a member of the East’s top-seeded team only twice.
But that’s James and the Cavs, a team that is slathered in playoff experience. The Celtics have virtually no experience as a postseason favorite, and little experience beyond the opening round of the playoffs.
Avery Bradley is the only remaining holdover from Boston’s days as a contender, and he got his postseason feet wet in his second season, during the 2011 playoffs. Other than him, new Celtic Al Horford has advanced past the first round five times, while Amir Johnson and Gerald Green have made brief appearances past Round 1 in their postseason careers.
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That’s not much experience in the ledger. Securing the first seed is a good deal more important for Boston, then. They’ll want the easiest possible road out of the first round to set themselves up for a tough second-round foe, likely either the Wizards or Raptors.
And homecourt is especially important to the Celtics. They’re 27-9 at home this year, second-best in the East (behind Cleveland), and they have won 14 of their last 15 at TD Garden, which is becoming an increasingly difficult place for opponents.
They just don’t want to admit that they’re thinking about it. Thus we have quotes like this one, from Crowder: “It’s pretty good. We’re where we want to be at the last stretch of the regular season. But we keep focusing on one game at a time and control our own destiny.”
Last month, during All-Star weekend, Celtics star Isaiah Thomas was more forthright about the importance of playoff positioning, and he’s been one of the few willing to go off-message about how much a top seed would mean.
“I look at it all the time, it is hard not to,” Thomas said then. “If we can find a way to finish in the top twoand get one of those seeds, we get to play at home, we get to start with a little more confidence. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but of course we look at where we are and we want to finish at the top.”
That doesn’t mean Thomas is popping champagne now that the Celtics have inched ahead of the Cavs. There’s still a long way to go. But the top seed would be a boost for Boston, no question. Even if most of the Celtics are not admitting it.