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Just one of 82? Draft swap adds importance to Celtics-Nets matchups

As if being embarrassed in consecutive games wasn't bad enough, there was a brief period of time Nov. 9 when the Boston Celtics looked up to find they had the same 3-4 record as the Brooklyn Nets. Some Celtics fans half-jokingly wondered if Boston could decline its 2017 first-round pick swap with the Nets if things went completely awry this season.

Two weeks later, the Atlantic Division looks more like what most people were expecting. The Celtics huddled for a players-only meeting in the aftermath of consecutive blowout losses to the Nuggets and Wizards and pledged to go back to playing like the scrappy bunch of overachievers that made them so endearing the past two seasons.

Boston, aided by improved health that includes the recent return of Al Horford after a nine-game absence, has won five of its past seven games. The Nets have won just once in their past six games and are riding a four-game losing streak in which they've given up 126 points per game.

The Celtics close out a three-game road trip Wednesday night at the Barclays Center and have the rare opportunity to improve the position of their potential first-round pick in June's draft.

After Boston lost twice to the Nets last season, including one November visit to Brooklyn, some believe the four biggest games on the Celtics' schedule are the ones against the Nets.

ESPN's Basketball Power Index currently projects the Nets to win 24.2 games, the second-lowest total in the league, behind only the Philadelphia 76ers (21.8 wins). By BPI projections, the Nets' pick has a 17.8 percent chance of being No. 1, a 50 percent chance of being top three, an 88.7 percent chance of being top five and a 99.6 percent chance of being top 10.

For all the consternation about Brooklyn's better-than-expected start, BPI does not predict the Nets to win another game until Jan. 8, when they host the 76ers. That means the Nets are BPI underdogs in their next 22 games. After the 76ers game, BPI doesn't favor the Nets again for another 35 games, in a March 23 matchup against the Phoenix Suns.

Make no mistake, the Nets are going to steal some games over that stretch; Brooklyn already defied BPI four times over its first 13 games. But with the Nets facing an absolutely brutal schedule before the new calendar year, including a pre-Christmas back-to-back against both of last year's Finals combatants -- a visit from Golden State on Dec. 22, then a trip to Cleveland the next night -- first-year coach Kenny Atkinson might have to find ways to keep his young team motivated should their record suffer.

Celtics players understand that having access to the Nets' picks, the result of the 2013 blockbuster that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, could be key in helping Boston build a sustained contender. But these Celtics don't pay much mind to how the Nets are faring. As All-Star point guard (and former 60th overall pick) Isaiah Thomas playfully noted before the Celtics and Nets met on opening night, "I worry about scoring the ball, getting my teammates involved and winning games. I don't know nothing about those first-round picks. And I wasn't a first-round pick, so I don't care about first-rounders."

Do a Twitter search for the hashtag "#Netspick", and you'll find that Celtics fans quite enjoy the possibilities that might spring from owning Brooklyn's draft spot this year and their pick outright in 2018. The biggest debate tends to center on whether Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge ought to move the picks. Some see Brooklyn's picks as the potential centerpiece of deals that could bring back the sort of established talent that could elevate Boston as a legitimate contender this year and beyond. Others see a loaded 2017 draft and wonder if patience -- not to mention a little bit of pingpong luck, the sort that has defied the Celtics throughout their otherwise charmed history -- might help Boston construct a juggernaut capable of competing deep into the future.

The bottom line is that Boston can impact only 4.9 percent of Brooklyn's 82-game schedule. These games might not look like the glitziest dates on Boston's schedule, but they might truly be some of the most important to the Celtics' title hopes down the road.