BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics clinched their first winning season under head coach Brad Stevens with a 91-79 win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday. The 39-year-old coach, who is always focused on the next challenge, took a brief moment to savor the progress of his team, particularly over the past calendar year, but quickly downplayed the accomplishment.
"There's been good progress. There's been good growth. And that's my biggest focus," Stevens said. "But you don't sign up to come to the Boston Celtics to win 42 games, so we've got a long way to go."
With Wednesday's win over the Kyle Lowry-less Raptors, Boston avoided a season sweep at the hands of a Toronto team still chasing the top seed in the Eastern Conference. After a disappointing lull earlier this month, in which Boston lost four straight and five out of six and slipped to sixth in the East, the Celtics have rebounded with three straight wins and moved back into a tie for the third seed with 10 games to play in the regular season.
That spot is tenuous at best, particularly as Boston prepares to embark on a five-game western road trip. What's more, the middle of the East playoff ladder remains a central artery traffic jam, with four teams -- the Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets -- within a half-game of one another.
In fact, all four teams entered action Wednesday with 41 wins. Then Boston and Atlanta posted victories to sneak ahead, while Miami lost to San Antonio, and the Hornets were idle. Now all four teams have 30 losses, and the final three weeks of the regular season won't lack for intrigue as they jockey with one another.
Consider this: Boston's last three games of the 2015-16 regular season are against those three teams (April 9 at Atlanta, April 11 vs. Charlotte and April 13 vs. Miami). A whole lot could change in the final six days of the season, regardless of what happens in getting to that final week. Players and coaches like to suggest they don't look at the standings, but Stevens admitted what we all suspected: It's impossible for the participants to ignore this four-hourse race.
"It's hard to be naive to [the standings], but I don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it," Stevens said. "I've got a general feel for where all the teams are. I don't know the exact records. I don't know the exact tie-breakers and all that other stuff. We've said all year the East is deep, and the East has been good, and you're going to have to play well through 82 games to get into the playoffs. Here we are."
With Boston emerging from its recent funk and the race for playoff position taking center stage in the final weeks, it's only natural to start looking ahead to potential matchups and how seeding might impact Boston's playoff path.
Stevens will implore his players to focus on each game as it comes. Boston's next game -- a visit to Phoenix -- offers a chance to build on this momentum and start the road trip on the right foot (even if a Suns win could help that Brooklyn pick in June).
Which teams should Celtics fans be rooting to face? We sought the help of ESPN's Basketball Power Index and its series forecast tool to provide answers.
THE LIKELY OPPONENTS: TRIPLE H (HAWKS, HEAT, HORNETS)
Given the four-team log jam in the middle of the East, BPI projects an 80.7 percent chance that Boston's first-round opponent will be the Hawks, Heat or Hornets. Unless the wheels come off completely for one of the four teams, they will comprise the 3-6 and 4-5 matchups in the East.
The Celtics have fared well against the Hornets (2-0) and Heat (2-0) to this point, but they have struggled with the Hawks (1-2). BPI, judging both regular-season performance and playoff experience, leans heavily in favor of Boston against both Charlotte and Miami.
Regardless of the top seed, Boston is projected to beat both the Hornets and Heat. The Celtics' have a 58 percent chance against Miami as the lower seed and spike to 66 percent with home-court advantage. Boston is an even more lopsided favorite against Charlotte, with a 60 percent chance to win as a lower seed and a 69 percent win rate with home court.
Then there are the Hawks, who, entering Wednesday's game, were projected as Boston's most likely first-round opponent, with a 29.1 percent chance of a first-round meeting. Aided by both a slight edge in season BPI rank and a heavy advantage in playoff experience, the Hawks are a 59 percent favorite as the higher seed, and Boston's win percentage with home court is barely more than a coin flip, at 51 percent.
LOOKING AHEAD: CAVS OR RAPTORS?
Part of the buzz entering the game Wednesday was that Boston needed to beat the Raptors to build some confidence, should there be a playoff meeting. Said Isaiah Thomas, "It wasn't just another game because we hadn't beat them this season."
Amir Johnson, who put up 11 points and 14 rebounds in Boston's win, was asked if he'd like to see his former team in the postseason.
"No matter who it is, I just know for myself, I'm definitely going to play hard against anybody," he said.
For much of the season, Boston fans have clung to the notion that the Celtics should do all they can to avoid the Cavaliers, and you need only to rewind to the previous season to understand why. Last year's second-half playoff surge landed Boston as the No. 7 seed, and that meant a first-round matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team most thought was far and away the best team in the East, despite the fact that the Hawks owned the conference's best regular-season record.
LeBron James & Co. promptly swept Boston out of the playoffs, then did the same to the Hawks in the conference finals.
Avoiding the Cavaliers seemed the ideal strategy for most of this season, but Toronto made the question a little trickier with its success against Boston. While the Celtics had a pair of double-digit losses to the Cavaliers, they also had a buzzer-beating win in Cleveland in early February.
Was Wednesday's Lowry-less win enough to suggest that Boston might prefer the Raptors? Through 72 games, BPI gives Boston a 40 percent chance of topping the Raptors and only a 27 percent chance against the Cavaliers. Part of Cleveland's advantage lies in its playoff experience. The Cavaliers rank second in BPI's "playoff experience" rankings, while Boston is 22nd (and the Raptors are 20th).
The bottom line for Boston is that, barring a first-round upset, they'll almost certainly be heavy underdogs in the second round. What's more, no amount of positioning will help them because the Raptors can still make a run at the No. 1 seed (though both Cleveland and Toronto have said they will prioritize health and rest over that top spot).
One thing is certain: The Celtics have put themselves in a position where their fans can dream ahead to the postseason. Under Stevens, the win total has climbed from 27 to 40 to a team that was trending toward 50 wins before Jae Crowder's injury. It doesn't seem outlandish to dream about a second-round matchup. Building off last year's postseason visit is a primary goal for this year's squad.
As Stevens said, it's all about progress. His focus is on the next game, and each game left on Boston's schedule could help dictate just how much postseason success this team will have.