The NBA Eastern Conference playoff race is gearing up for a photo finish.
After a league-wide off day Monday, every East playoff contender except for the Boston Celtics will play Tuesday night. The Celtics currently sit two games behind the Miami Heat in the No. 2 seed, but they're just 0.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers with three regular-season games remaining.
Here's a look at the standings for East playoff contenders entering Tuesday night.
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- Miami Heat
- Boston Celtics (2.0 games back)
- Milwaukee Bucks (2.5 GB)
- Philadelphia 76ers (2.5 GB)
- Chicago Bulls (5.5 GB)
- Toronto Raptors (5.5 GB)
- Cleveland Cavaliers (8.0 GB)*
- Atlanta Hawks (9.5 GB)*
- Charlotte Hornets (10.5 GB)*
- Brooklyn Nets (10.5 GB)*
For the Celtics, two questions need answering: 1) What seed should they want, and 2) How can they get it?
Celtics' ideal seed
Unless Miami loses at least two of its final three games (vs. Charlotte, vs. Atlanta, at Orlando), the No. 1 seed is out of reach. But No. 2 would be a great spot for Boston.
If the Celtics land the No. 2 seed, they'll get a first-round series with the winner of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup in the play-in tournament. Right now, that'd be Cleveland or Atlanta, who are both beatable opponents.
The Nets could sneak into that 7-8 game by catching Atlanta, and a first-round matchup with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving wouldn't be ideal. Boston could guarantee avoiding Brooklyn in Round 1 by dropping to the No. 3 or No. 4 seed.
But that sets up the possibility of a first-round series against Toronto, which is 11-3 in its last 14 games and plays in a city where unvaccinated players wouldn't be available.
The No. 2 seed also means homecourt advantage in a potential second-round matchup with the No. 3 (or No. 6 seed), so the Celtics have plenty of incentive to close out their regular season -- at Chicago on Wednesday, at Milwaukee on Thursday, at Memphis on Sunday -- strong.
Teams and games for Celtics fans to monitor
If the goal is keeping Boston in the No. 2 seed and Brooklyn out of the No. 8 seed, Celtics fans should keep tabs on these games Tuesday night:
Bucks at Bulls. Milwaukee has lost two in a row, and if it loses in Chicago, the Celtics can ensure they'll finish ahead of the Bucks with a win Thursday night in Milwaukee.
76ers at Pacers. Celtics fans would love an Indiana upset here, but that probably isn't happening. Boston does own the tie-breaker over Philly and still would be in second place if the Sixers beat the Pacers.
Philly closes with Toronto, Detroit and Indiana after Tuesday's game. If the Raptors beat the Sixers and the Celtics win two of their last three, Boston will edge Philly in the standings.
Hawks at Raptors. Boston should be rooting for Atlanta here. A win would keep the Hawks in the No. 8 spot ahead of the Nets, who are a game back with four games to play.
Atlanta finishes with Washington, Miami and Houston, and if it can go 3-1 down the stretch, that could be enough to fend off Brooklyn and set up a Cavs-Hawks 7-8 matchup.
Nets vs. Rockets. Brooklyn should take care of business against the worst team in the Western Conference. Its final three games are all winnable, too: at New York, vs. Cleveland and vs. Indiana. If avoiding Brooklyn is the goal, the Celtics will be rooting for the Cavs in that Friday night matchup.
Got all that? It's a lot to follow, which is why Celtics coach Ime Udoka insists he's just focused on winning games rather than scoreboard-watching. But scoreboard-watching is a lot of fun for fans, and we should know a lot more about where Boston stands after Tuesday night alone.