The Boston Celtics will face off against the Houston Rockets on primetime television Saturday night. An inter-conference matchup in February usually isn't worth noting, but this game has some heightened meaning; with a win, the Celtics would move past the Toronto Raptors for the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. There are still a lot of games left to play, and Boston could find themselves back in third by the middle of next week. But the scenario serves as a reminder of just how important the second seed will be when the playoffs do come around.
As it currently stands, the two-seed is a race between the Raptors and Celtics. Right now, the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and Indiana Pacers are all within 2.5 games of each other for the fourth, fifth, and sixth seeds. The Heat, currently five and a half games behind Boston, currently hold the foruth spot in the standings. All three are tough outs; Miami is playing cohesive basketball, the Sixers have star power (however ill-fitting they may be) and Victor Oladipo is still getting back into form for Indy. One of Boston or Toronto will have to face one of those teams as the third seed in the East once the season is done.
On the flip side, whoever ends up with the second seed will have a much easier road to the second round. The Orlando Magic currently hold a half-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets for the seventh seed, but are a full eight games behind the Pacers for the sixth seed. This means that barring a ridiculous win streak and some luck, the Nets and Magic will be the bottom two seeds in the East. The difference between playing the Spencer Dinwiddie-led Nets or the Evan Fournier (?)-led Magic compared to Miami/Philadelphia/Indiana is quite substantial, to say the least. Boston and Toronto are battling for a significantly easier road to the second round of the playoffs. This is especially important for Boston; there isn't a worse matchup among the Eastern Conference playoff teams than Philadelphia, and both they and Indiana have elite big men to take advantage of the Celtics' lack of size down low.
Assuming both Toronto and Boston move on to the second round, regardless of who their first-round opponent is, home-court advantage will be crucial. Both Boston and Toronto boast strong home-court advantages, especially in the playoffs. The Celtics' victory over the Raptors on Christmas Day was the first time they won in Toronto in over four years. There's a very good chance that, should they meet in the playoffs, the deciding factor will be which team has the extra home game.
Both teams will be exchanging spots constantly over the last month and change of the season. The biggest game remaining on the schedule for the two squads comes on March 20, when Boston visits Toronto for the fourth and final iteration of their season series. Boston currently leads 2-1, and if they come away with a win in March, will have a definitive tiebreaker for the higher seed if they end up with the same record at the end of the year. If Toronto ties up the series, then the tiebreaker will come down to things like divisional and inter-conference record, which could get messy.
Having a higher playoff seed is obviously important, but the difference in the two roads this season for the Celtics and Raptors is more extreme than usual. Whoever comes away with the higher seed will have a cakewalk of a first round and the significant advantage of four home games in the second. The other will have to battle it out in round one, then be prepared for another just as fierce fight in round two without home court. It may very well determine who gets to take their best shot at the wood chipper that is the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.