LeBron James, while playing for the Cavaliers, called seeding irrelevant: “Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a six seed or a three seed or a two seed, eight seed. If I come into your building for a Game 1, I can be very challenging.”
That message rubbed off on then-Cleveland teammate Tristan Thompson, who now plays for the Celtics.
Thompson, via CLNS Media:
Winning games in the regular season, to me, they matter. But I really think it’s a bunch of horses***.
My final good year in Cleveland, we finished fourth. And we kind of did it on purpose, because we kind of wanted to stay fresh. So, I mean, being a top-four seed, being the three seed, being the one – let’s be real. Probably three out of the four years we made the Finals, we were never the No. 1 seed.
My whole thing is just being healthy when it matters. Of course, for us, we’ve haven’t had a healthy squad. Adding Fournier – him out with his safety protocols. So, we haven’t had full health. So, I think regular season matters in terms of just building chemistry.
But that s***’s out the window we get to playoffs. It’s all about matchups. It’s all about matchups. You saw the New Orleans Pelicans were a six seed and boned the s*** out of a Portland Trail Blazers team that was a third seed. You see it all the time. So it’s all about matchups in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter what your seeding is. As long as you’re healthy and you match up with a team, you can win. Anything’s possible.
Thompson listed the three years the Cavs advanced to the NBA Finals as a lower seed:
- 2015: No. 2 seed (53-29), defeated No. 1 seed Hawks (60-22)
- 2017: No. 4 seed (51-31), defeated No. 1 seed Celtics (53-29)
- 2018: No. 4 seed (50-32), defeated No. 1 seed Raptors (59-23) and No. 2 seed Celtics (55-27)
But there’s a huge difference between those Cleveland teams and this Boston team: THE CAVALIERS HAD LEBRON JAMES.
They could afford to cruise during the regular season and flip a switch during the playoffs. LeBron was a proven deep-postseason performer who transcended matchups. Health was the top priority, because the Cavs knew they could be great when it counted if their stars were healthy.
The Celtics have given no such indication.
Cleveland went 50-32 while, as Thompson said, prioritizing staying fresh. Boston appears to be trying to win and is just 26-26, seventh in the East.
Maybe, by the playoffs, newcomer Evan Fournier will lift the Celtics to a higher level than their record would indicate. Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker and Thompson could be healthier in the postseason than they’ve been during the regular season. Boston could catch the right matchup.
Health matters. Matchups matter.
But, usually, the better team just wins.
The higher seed has won 73% of all best-of-seven series.
If anything, higher-seeded teams tend to be healthier. Better health during the regular season translates to a higher seed, and it’s easier to stay healthy than get healthy.
Matchups can make a difference. But that 2018 Pelicans-Trail Blazers series is an exception.
Want a more telling example? See the Bucks and Magic in last year’s first round. As a good jump-shooting team, Orlando held a matchup advantage against Milwaukee’s style of defense. But the Bucks were a far-superior team overall (as they showed while earning a higher seed during the regular season) and crushed the Magic, 4-1.
That said, Milwaukee ran into matchup problems with the Heat in the next round and got smoked. Miami was definitely better than Orlando but maybe not as good as the Bucks overall. The Heat were close enough to Milwaukee and played a style that gave Milwaukee trouble.
So, no, the Celtics aren’t necessarily doomed to an early exit if they enter the playoffs as a low seed.
But the teams that show a higher level of play during the regular season – and earn a higher seed in the process – are far more likely to advance.