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Playoff positioning

Thanks to a wrinkle in the rules, the Celtics hold a playoff-seeding tiebreaker over the Atlanta Hawks despite being 0-4 against them. Colleague Peter May details how it could possibly be true:

Back in the final week of the 2007-08 season, the people in the NBA office who oversee playoff scheduling nearly had a collective coronary.

Michael Dwyer/AP

One happy Spurs fan behind an unhappy Paul Pierce.There were four teams within a game of each other vying for the top spot in the Western Conference. What should have been an exhilarating push over the final few games to determine a conference champion was instead turning into a potential nightmare.

Three of the teams were in the Southwest Division: Houston, New Orleans and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. If those three teams ended in a tie, the league's tiebreaker formula would kick in and give the division title to the Hornets. But that wasn't the problem. The problem was the fourth team, the Lakers.

If all four teams ended with the same record, which was entirely possible, then the Rockets would emerge as the tiebreaker winner. And there you had it: A team that could not win its division under one scenario emerged as the No. 1 seed in the conference under another scenario. The league did not want that to happen.

Luckily, the Lakers won out and secured the best record in the conference by a game over the Spurs and Hornets and by two games over the Rockets. But the matter moved the NBA to institute a minor wrinkle in the tiebreaking formula for the following season, 2008-09: If a division winner finished with the same record as a non-division winner, then the division winner would automatically receive the higher seed. Head-to-head results from the regular season would not matter.

"We added division winner as the first tiebreaker in an effort to provide a larger benefit to capturing a division title," explained league spokesman Tim Frank.

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But does it really matter where the Celtics end up in terms of seeding? Rasheed Wallace helped put it in perspective after Sunday's loss to the Spurs:

With nine games remaining in their respective regular seasons, the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks have matching 47-26 records, leaving them neck-and-neck as they jockey for position in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

If it comes down to a photo finish and both teams are still tied when regular-season play ends in the middle of April, the Celtics will get the higher seed based on the NBA's division-winner tiebreaker.

But regardless of how it all plays out, does playoff position really matter to Boston?

"These last few games, they mean something, but they don't mean nothing -- if you get what I'm saying," Rasheed Wallace offered after Sunday's loss to the San Antonio Spurs, suggesting that it was more important for the Celtics to use these games to get players like Kendrick Perkins (left knee tendinitis) healthy and to develop some cohesion on the court.

Wallace said the team's focus is on finishing up strong and healthy. The Celtics will let the chips fall where they may from there.

"You always want to finish out strong," said Wallace. "We're not a team that sits back and says, 'We made the playoffs, cool, we're good. Let's throw the last dozen games away.' Nah, we're still trying to win all [nine]. No matter how many, we're trying to win them all."

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