BOSTON -- After Friday's win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics' locker room was brimming with positive energy. Isaiah Thomas brought his two young sons, Jaiden and James, into his media scrum where they tried valiantly -- but unsuccessfully -- to get their dad's attention while he expressed a desire to finish the season strong and secure the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
A mere 72 hours later, after the Celtics endured discouraging losses against the Atlanta Hawks -- fatigue setting in after an offensive eruption over the first 30 minutes of the game -- and versus the Charlotte Hornets -- a game in which Boston coach Brad Stevens said his team "laid an eight-minute egg" in a lopsided second quarter -- Boston's locker room was a ghost town, with those who remained to face the media trying their best to put a positive spin on Boston's late-season stumble.
Once in complete control of their playoff position -- or at least at the front of the pack in the four-team traffic jam in the middle of the Eastern Conference -- the Celtics went into a tail spin the past two games. With the No. 3 seed now out of reach, Boston is left hoping it can salvage home-court advantage by securing the No. 4 seed in Wednesday's regular-season finale against the Miami Heat.
After Charlotte's 114-100 triumph at TD Garden on Monday night, the Celtics and Hornets emerged with matching 47-34 records. Both teams linger behind the Heat (47-33) and Hawks (48-33). Miami visits Detroit on Tuesday night with a chance to pull even with Atlanta. On Wednesday night, the Hawks visit the Washington Wizards, the Hornets host the Orlando Magic and the Celtics host the Heat in a national TV game on ESPN.
How might things shake out? Well, that will be much clearer after Miami's game on Tuesday. But here's a quick overview of the most likely scenarios:
Celtics as the fourth seed: Assuming Miami wins on Tuesday and Atlanta wins on Wednesday, the Celtics can secure the No. 4 seed with a win over the Heat. Boston has the benefit of head-to-head and three-way tiebreakers over Miami and Charlotte, which might help Boston salvage this rocky stretch by simply closing the regular season on a high note.
Celtics as the fifth seed: Celtics fans are Hawks fans at the moment because one of the only ways that Boston slides to the No. 5 seed -- even with a win on Wednesday night -- would be if there's a four-way tie in the final standings. In that scenario, all four teams would finish at 48-34. Miami would be the No. 3 seed based on winning the Southeast Division -- Atlanta would get the No. 4 seed and Boston would be fifth based on tiebreakers. The Celtics could also finish fifth with a loss to Miami if Charlotte also loses its final game.
Celtics as the sixth seed: If Miami wins out and Charlotte posts a victory on Wednesday night, the Celtics will slide all the way to No. 6. While some might find a silver lining in the potential to dodge the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semifinals from that spot, the more immediate concern would be opening a best-of-seven series on the road against a team Boston had recently lost to.
The playoff logjam -- even 168 days into the NBA season -- is enough to give you an ice-cream headache. But the bigger issue for Boston might simply be its play at this juncture of the season. The Celtics, who lingered near the top three in the league in defensive rating for most of the year, were clinging to a tie for the fifth-best mark after Monday's loss. The Hornets embarked on a dominating 31-3 run over the final eight minutes of the second quarter with Jeremy Lin scoring 17 points in that stretch to put the game out of reach early.
"We have to come out and play defense, get the mojo back a little bit after a two-game slide," said Evan Turner.
What's more, the Hornets simply packed the paint Monday and watched Boston fumble the ball all over the place during its offensive dry spell. The Celtics seemed frustrated by their inability to simply drive and kick, and their sloppy turnovers led to easy points in transition for the Hornets.
Avery Bradley, one of the more optimistic players in the Celtics' locker room, tried his best to keep the focus on the future rather than lamenting what's gone wrong recently.
"I don’t even want to dwell on it. Game was over," said Bradley. "We still have a chance to be in the playoffs. We still have a chance to be where we want to be. We just have to focus on the next game. Whatever happens, happens. A team can lose, Miami could lose tomorrow, anything can happen. We just need to focus on the next game."
The Celtics' vocal leaders, Thomas and Jae Crowder, made quick exits after playing just 21 minutes on Monday. They are undoubtedly frustrated by Boston's struggles. Stevens knows his players are aware of the playoff seedings, but he's begged them to simply focus on tidying up their play in hopes of entering the playoffs with momentum.
That's going to be difficult given the recent hiccup.
"I think, 'Do you have all your T's crossed and your I's dotted?’ is the question that has to be answered," said Stevens. "Are we able to adjust on the fly? Is everybody physically ready to play and ready to play at a good level and ready to compete at a good level for extended time? And all of those things.
"Hey, we didn’t play very well in the fourth quarter in Atlanta or tonight, so we’ll see. We’ll see. I do know this: Everything resets after Wednesday, right? And so, you know, obviously we do want to be playing better on Wednesday night than we played tonight -- that starts at practice [Tuesday]. It’ll be nice to have a practice. It’ll be nice to get out there a little bit. And we’ll see what happens."