Look into future not pretty for Celtics

If the NBA season ended Wednesday, the Boston Celtics would hold the third seed in the Eastern Conference. It's a spot they'd be well-served to be holding when the season actually ends in a little more than a month.

The Milwaukee Bucks -- the team that stood nose-to-nose with Boston on Tuesday night in Milwaukee and emerged with a gritty victory -- have surged to the fifth seed in the East and would be in line to meet the fourth seed in the opening round of the playoffs.

That's a spot where the Celtics could very easily find themselves sitting when the 2009-10 season ends on April 14. While Boston currently holds a one-game edge in the loss column over the Atlanta Hawks (who have played one game more), Atlanta holds the tiebreaker after sweeping Boston during the regular season.

The path to the NBA Finals for the fourth seed is likely to look like this: Bucks in Round 1, Cleveland Cavaliers in Round 2, Hawks or Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals.

While the Celtics will tell you that it doesn't matter which team they see in the postseason or when, it goes without saying that the above scenario is hardly an ideal road map to postseason success.

Boston is a combined 3-9 against those four potential opponents, including a cringe-worthy 1-5 at home.

Imagine a seven-game, first-round series with the Bucks, in which every game drips with the intensity that Tuesday's contest featured. Ponder the mental and physical toll that could take on a team that would then have to turn around and play LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

Heck, you don't even have to imagine. Boston saw a similar scenario last season, when an upstart Chicago Bulls team took the Celtics to seven games in what some dubbed the most memorable first-round series in NBA playoff history.

Boston, already depleted by injuries, didn't have enough left in the tank in the second round to get past the Magic, who ultimately advanced to the NBA Finals.

The Celtics undeniably played a rather awful game Tuesday night. Paul Pierce (3-of-13, 12 points), Ray Allen (0-for-3, 3 points) and Kendrick Perkins (3-of-9, 6 points) were downright dreadful from the floor, leaving Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo to shoulder the load.

Pierce got a chance to atone with a final shot that could have forced overtime, but his fadeaway over Andrew Bogut rimmed out at the buzzer. Boston put itself in that unenviable position by being unable to stop the Bucks late in the game as Milwaukee made six straight shots while embarking on a 14-2 run to open an 86-79 advantage with 2:42 to go.

The Bucks didn't score again, but they didn't have to.

Milwaukee has won 10 of 11 games since the trade deadline, the only loss in that span a 106-102 overtime defeat at Atlanta.

It's the type of run in which a team earns the label as the team no one wants to see in the playoffs. But if the Bucks remain hot and the Celtics continue to struggle against quality opponents, then a first-round matchup is highly probable.

That's daunting because Bogut is finally looking like a top overall pick; adding John Salmons might have been one of the top deadline moves for any playoff contender; Carlos Delfino scores only in increments of 3; and Brandon Jennings remains one of the top young players in the league. Tuesday's game ended with the rookie jawing at Garnett as they walked off the court next to each other.

Should the Celtics end up matched up against Milwaukee, they'll have no one to blame but themselves. The Celtics' inconsistent play leaves them jockeying for position over the final quarter of the season.

As Pierce lamented last week, if the Celtics had taken care of their home court better to this point, they'd probably be battling Orlando for the second seed. Instead, they'll likely be scoreboard watching with the Hawks over these final 20 contests.

This is exactly why the regular season matters. Perkins suggested last month that some inside the Celtics' locker room haven't valued the regular season in part because of Boston's stellar road record, which may have given the team a false sense of invincibility. As that thinking goes, Boston has been so successful away from home that home-court advantage isn't the luxury it might have been in seasons past.

"Listen, we came to play hard, we just didn't play well [Tuesday]," Celtics coach Doc Rivers admitted after the Milwaukee loss.

It's an encouraging sign that the Celtics played hard against a quality opponent -- that alone is a step in the right direction -- but the loss showed just how challenging the road to banner 18 could be.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.