Celtics’ playoff path remains unclear as NBA enters final day of regular season

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Celtics’ playoff path remains unclear as NBA enters final day of regular season

As the Celtics’ bench dismantled the Hornets in a 131-98 win Friday, it felt like some fun but meaningless basketball for the team that clinched the top seed some time ago.

But around the East, some serious battles were going on. Boston’s spot at the top was the only thing set entering the evening. As the NBA prepares for Sunday’s final matchups of the regular season, plenty is still up in the air.

Boston’s path in the playoffs still remains unclear, so let’s break down where things stand.

The Play-In Tournament will provide a bit more suspense for the Celtics this season. They were the two-seed a year ago, so they faced Atlanta when the Hawks upset the Heat in the first round of the Play-In. But now that the Celtics sit atop the standings, they will have to wait for the final round of the Play-In, as the loser of the 7 vs. 8 matchup plays the winner of the 9 vs. 10 matchup.

The Sixers beat Orlando 125-113 Friday after Joel Embiid briefly left the game, keeping Philadelphia’s hopes of climbing up to the No. 6 seed alive. This means the Magic have to beat the Bucks on Sunday to avoid the Play-In. Milwaukee lost to Oklahoma City Friday and the Knicks came back to beat the Nets, which means Milwaukee will need a win to hang on to the No. 2 seed.

However, since that only determines home-court advantage in the second round, the Bucks might rest their players, giving Orlando a better chance at winning to remain in fifth place while tied in the standings with Philadelphia and Indiana.

Even with a win, Philadelphia remains down in the seventh seed because of the tiebreaker rules. If the Pacers lose and the other two win, that would move Philadelphia up to fifth, Orlando to sixth and Indiana to seventh.

That affects Boston’s path in two ways. The first is that Indiana would now be in the mix for the Celtics’ first-round matchup, the team Boston played five times this year and knows quite well. While Miami’s postseason metamorphosis is an annual event, the Heat did blow the initial Play-In game last season before earning the eighth seed and eventually beating the Celtics in the conference finals.

A Pacers loss Sunday also puts Philadelphia back in the Celtics’ path in the second round, as the Sixers would be a strong matchup for Cleveland in the first round. Boston could theoretically face Atlanta, Philadelphia and Miami for the second year.

But because the Hawks are stuck in 10th, it’s unlikely they play their starters against Indiana on Sunday. Since the Sixers and Pacers are playing teams with nothing to lose, the East could come down to the Bucks-Magic game.

With the Knicks beating the Nets, they are now tied with the Bucks for the second seed following Milwaukee’s loss to OKC. Cleveland could still leap to second if Milwaukee and New York lose Sunday.

So what does this all mean?

Unless the Bucks care about home-court advantage in the second round, Orlando could face a bench crew as it fights to stay out of the Play-In. The Hawks have no reason to play their starters against Indiana, so the likely outcome is the Sixers remain in the seventh seed.

That would make Philly and Miami the favorites for the playoffs and put a familiar foe in Boston’s way to open up the bracket.

Miami has played Boston tough this year, and even though the Heat once again have been inconsistent, it’s Miami. The Heat do it every year. Jimmy Butler hits another level, Erik Spoelstra coaches circles around the league and they pull off upsets.

The Heat got the Bucks at the right moment last season, with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing through injury. Well guess what, it’s happened again, as the Heat could get the seventh seed and set up a rematch with Milwaukee. It remains unclear whether the former MVP will recover from his calf injury in time to play in that series.

If that happens, a Sixers team cruising since Embiid’s return would be a favorite over Atlanta and Chicago to face the Celtics. Last year, Boston was able to squeeze past Philadelphia because of its defense on James Harden. This time around, the Sixers don’t have as much inconsistency in their high-end offensive players, but they also don’t have someone who can single-handedly win a game like Harden did in last year’s series.

Things could bounce in the Celtics’ favor on the final day of the regular season, but it looks like they may be in for a tough first-round opponent.

Miami and Philly have the potential to play like contenders. Milwaukee has the tools to do it, but has been all over the place this year. Cleveland looked like a contender for much of this season, but has lost significant momentum since its win over Boston after the All-Star break.

The best team the Celtics come across could show up in any round. It’s up to Boston to make that irrelevant.

(Photo of Payton Pritchard and Charlotte’s Tre Mann: David Butler II / USA Today)