The Boston Celtics have owned the best record in basketball since Dec. 23. But keeping that status will be no easy feat.
The Celtics emerge from the NBA All-Star break with just a half-game lead in the Eastern Conference over the Milwaukee Bucks, who ripped off 12 straight wins entering All-Star Weekend. The Philadelphia 76ers loom just three games behind Boston, while the Cleveland Cavaliers (five games back) are still in the mix as well.
So, what obstacles do the C's face in their quest for the No. 1 seed? And what might work in their favor to help them earn home-court advantage throughout the postseason?
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With 23 games remaining on Boston's schedule, here's a full breakdown of the East playoff picture, starting with a look at the current standings and continuing with a short-term outlook for the top four contenders.
Eastern Conference Standings (as of Feb. 22)
- Boston Celtics (42-17)
- Milwaukee Bucks (41-17) -- 0.5 games back
- Philadelphia 76ers (38-19) -- 3 GB
- Cleveland Cavaliers (38-23) -- 5 GB
- Brooklyn Nets (34-24) -- 7.5 GB
- New York Knicks (33-27) -- 9.5 GB
- Miami Heat (32-27) -- 10.0 GB
- Atlanta Hawks (29-30) -- 13.0 GB
Celtics' upcoming schedule
Next five games: at Pacers, at Sixers, at Knicks, vs. Cavs, vs. Nets
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .509 (10th-toughest schedule in NBA)
First-round matchup if season ended today: Hawks
Short-term outlook: The All-Star break came at a perfect time for the Celtics, who could have their preferred starting five intact Thursday night in Indiana for just the second time this season. Marcus Smart looked no worse for wear last Wednesday in his return from an ankle injury, while Jaylen Brown successfully debuted his new mask during Sunday's All-Star Game.
Still, the next five games are no cakewalk, considering Boston lost to the Pacers at home earlier this season and is 0-2 against the Cavs this season. If the Celtics are able to win three or four of these matchups, however, they should be able to stay ahead of the Bucks, whose star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is expected to miss time due to a wrist injury. (More on that shortly.)
Bucks' upcoming schedule
Next five games: vs. Heat, vs. Suns, at Nets, vs. Magic, vs. Sixers
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .508 (11th-toughest schedule)
First-round matchup if season ended today: Heat
Short-term outlook: Antetokounmpo has a sprained ligament in his right wrist, per reports, and is expected to miss at least a few games. The Bucks have the NBA's second-best record and can afford to be cautious with their superstar, but they're just 6-5 in the 11 games he's missed this season.
We can easily see Milwaukee dropping at least two of its next five matchups, which include the reloaded Suns and Joel Embiid's Sixers. That would give Boston a little extra breathing room.
Sixers' upcoming schedule
Next five games: vs. Grizzlies, vs. Celtics, vs. Heat, at Heat, at Mavericks
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .540 (Toughest schedule)
First-round matchup if season ended today: Knicks
Short-term outlook: Philly is getting hot at the right time, going 13-3 in its last 16 games and taking a four-game winning streak into the break. Embiid, James Harden and Co. will be tested down the stretch, however, as they have the NBA's most difficult remaining schedule.
That includes a gauntlet right out of the gate, with games against the Grizzlies, Celtics, Heat (twice) and new-look Mavs. It's hard to see the Sixers catching up to Boston and Milwaukee (in the short term, at least) with that schedule.
Cavs' upcoming schedule
Next five games: vs. Nuggets, at Hawks, vs. Raptors, at Celtics, vs. Pistons
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .481 (27th-toughest schedule)
First-round matchup if season ended today: Nets
Short-term outlook: Cleveland is also surging, with its only loss in the last eight games coming on the road in Philly. The Cavs will also benefit from the NBA's fourth-easiest schedule down the stretch that includes five combined games against the lottery-bound San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets.
In the immediate future, though, the Cavs will need to play the No. 1 seeds in the West and East in Denver and Boston. They seem pretty comfortably locked into the No. 4 seed at the moment.