Should the Celtics make the No. 1 seed in the East a priority?

Brad Stevens should take a cautious approach to expending the energy necessary to overtake the Cavaliers for the East's top seed. AP Photo/Winslow Townson

The Boston Celtics sit 2.5 games back of the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers with 27 games remaining on their schedule. With Cleveland's Kevin Love sidelined for six weeks after knee surgery on Tuesday, there is an opportunity for the Celtics to make a play for the top seed in the East.

The lingering question is whether it's worthwhile for Boston to expend the sort of energy that would be required to close that gap and make a play for the No. 1 seed. History reflects fondly on top seeds in the postseason as they've accounted for two-thirds of NBA champions since the current seeding process began during the 1983-84 season. But recent history suggests that conference finals matchups between No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are merely a coin flip.

ESPN's Basketball Power Index projected Boston to have a 15.7 percent chance at earning the No. 1 seed entering Wednesday's action. With Love sidelined, those odds should eventually climb. As Insider's Kevin Pelton wrote, the Cavaliers project at three or four fewer wins based on Love's potential replacements. That would bring the two teams closer to BPI's current 53-win projection for the Celtics.

Also working in Boston's favor: BPI projects that the Celtics have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA (the Cavaliers have the 15th-easiest remaining slate). The question that can't be answered with Cleveland is whether the eventual return of J.R. Smith will help offset the loss of Love.

Regardless, it's fair to say that the door is more open for the Celtics to make a charge, as improbable as that seemed in mid-December, when Boston was tied for the fifth spot in the East and sat 5.5 games behind Cleveland.

So just how important is seeding? A glimpse at how the top three seeds in both conferences have fared since 1983-84:

So, a whopping 56 percent of NBA Finals combatants have been No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences compared to 27.3 percent being No. 2 seeds. That simply confirms two things: The best team in each conference typically lands the top seed, and the easier path created by home-court advantage aids advancement.

What's harder to gauge is what happens when a quality team endures injuries and doesn't land the No. 1 seed. It's worth noting that the East finals have featured the top two seeds in each of the past three seasons, but the No. 2 seed won two of those three matchups.

Another way to look at those three matchups: The team with LeBron James won all three series.

Overall, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in a conference have met 28 times over the past 33 years. The No. 1 seed has won 14 times, the No. 2 seed has won 14 times. The advantage of home court in that scenario is essentially diminished, and it more likely comes down to talent and health.

Which is to say, there is always the chance that Boston, which has dealt with its own batch of injuries this season, expends the necessary energy to secure the No. 1 seed only to have the Cavaliers, possibly healthier by playoff time and more engaged than they've been in recent weeks, kick it into overdrive and still emerge in the East.

It seems prudent for Celtics coach Brad Stevens to approach this cautiously. The Celtics have never gone out of their way to rest players on a young roster, but they have been cautious with injuries, including giving Avery Bradley extended time to recover from an Achilles injury this season. The Celtics can make a push for the top seed, but it shouldn't come at the cost of running players into the ground before the postseason arrives.

Let's remember that the Celtics have played a ridiculous number of close games, forcing key rotation players to log increased minutes in order to finish out wins. Those minutes add up over an 82-game season. Health is far more likely to impact Boston's postseason run than seeding.

Earning one of the top two spots should absolutely be a priority for Boston, and it bodes well that BPI currently projects them to have a 67.6 percent chance at the No. 2 seed thanks to its own 2.5-game lead over the nearest competition (Washington Wizards).

The Celtics must continue to take care of business against subpar opponents, something they failed to do last season and which came back to bite them in the standings. Boston finished in a four-way tie for third place in the East, and an unforgiving tiebreaker pushed them to the No. 5 seed. That forced Boston to open on the road against the Atlanta Hawks, who ousted the Celtics in six games.

The Celtics have quietly put a premium on defeating lesser opponents this season with a goal of not leaving their fate to anyone but themselves. Boston is 25-7 against teams below .500 this season, which is the best record in the East.

The other variable at play here is whether anyone else in the East will make a push for a top spot. Toronto, struggling mightily lately, shook things up by acquiring Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic on Tuesday. BPI projected Toronto to finish three games back of the Celtics, but the move might help the Raptors emerge from their funk while filling one of their most glaring needs.

Celtics fans, itchy for the team to make a move to shore up its own defensive rebounding woes, fret a bit each time an available big man like Ibaka lands elsewhere, particularly with a key division rival in this case. But what we can gauge from recent deals that moved Ibaka and Jusuf Nurkic is that Boston is not interested in mortgaging valuable future assets -- young talent and key first-round picks -- in order to marginally improve its roster for the short term.

Let's remember that the Celtics, armed with potentially the No. 1 pick in June's draft, have the ability to seek another max-contract free agent this summer. Boston should focus on being a long-term contender -- not slightly increasing their odds of making a title run this year. Getting through the likes of the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors as presently constructed is a daunting task.

What's more important is simply showing strides this year. Boston is already an intriguing destination because of the product they have now and the ability to add key parts moving forward. What would help Boston most before free agency this summer is simply putting together a strong postseason run, regardless of seeding, and showing that they need just another piece to truly contend.

Two remaining games with Cleveland (March 1 and April 5) will go a long way toward determining how the race for the No. 1 seed plays out. But that spot alone is unlikely to greatly impact Boston's future success, and the focus should be on well beyond this season.