Even it was by default, the Boston Celtics claimed the top seed in the Eastern Conference entering the playoffs by finishing 53-29, two games ahead of the 51-31 Cleveland Cavaliers, who had owned the top spot in the conference the previous two regular seasons.
The Celtics went 7-3 in their final 10 games in contrast to the Cavaliers, who were seemingly more concerned with providing their key players—LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love—adequate rest to open the postseason. The Cavs lost six of their last 10, including four straight to conclude their schedule, while sitting the trio for several of those contests.
The East’s No. 1 seed may now wish they could have a do-over and happily allow the Cavs to retain regular season supremacy to avoid the Chicago Bulls after devastating defeats at home in Games 1 and 2 to the eighth seed in their opening round best-of-seven series.
Both analytically and empirically, the Celtics have thus far presented themselves as the inferior team. Despite ending the regular season 12 games ahead of the Bulls, who were 41-41, the Celtics have looked nothing like a regular season conference champion.
It would be plausible to suggest the Celtics were viscerally affected in Game 1 by the tragic death of Chyna Thomas, the 22-year-old younger sister of their All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. Chyna Thomas died in a one-car accident Saturday in Washington State, and the following day the Celtics leading scorer, who averaged 28.9, third best in the NBA, visibly cried on the sidelines before tipoff.
The game was close throughout, and after the Bulls surged to a nine-point lead late in the fourth quarter, a Celtics comeback fell short in a 106-102 defeat. Thomas admirably scored a game-high 33 points while Jimmy Butler had 30 for the Bulls.
Game 2 Tuesday was a different story. The Bulls controlled the tempo from the outset and kept the Celtics at arm’s length for most of the night in a 111-97 victory. The series resumes in Chicago tomorrow night for Game 3 with the Celtics needing a win to avert what will be a certain rare elimination of a No.1 seed by an eighth seed.
In the other Eastern Conference first round series, the No. 2-seeded Cavaliers lead the seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers 2-0 with Game 3 tonight (Thursday, 7 p.m.) at Indiana. The third-seeded Toronto Raptors are in a closely contested 1-1 series with the No. 6 seed Milwaukee Bucks as the underdog now has the next two games in Milwaukee beginning tonight in Game 3. And the No. 4 seed Washington Wizards were seeking a 2-0 lead at home last night against the No. 5 seed Hawks before the series moves to Atlanta for Games 3 and 4 Saturday and Monday.