By A.Sherrod Blakely
WASHINGTON For weeks, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers has said playoff seeding means little to him if it comes at the cost of having a healthy roster heading into the playoffs.
Rivers backed his words up with his actions on Monday, opting to sit his Big Four - Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett - in a game that the Celtics needed to win in order to keep their hopes of securing the No. 2 seed alive.
Those hopes were dashed following a 95-94 overtime loss at Washington that locks the Celtics into the No. 3 seed where they will face the New York Knicks who clinched the No. 6 seed with Philadelphia's home loss to Orlando.
Game One of the first-round series between Boston and New York is expected to be Sunday at the TD Garden.
The Celtics had a chance to win the game in the closing seconds, but Carlos Arroyo's last-second jumper was off the mark.
We have seen Boston's core group have their struggles at times in closing out games.
It was more of the same with the team's second and third units.
"We made so many blunders down the stretch," Rivers said. "But they didn't do it because they weren't playing hard. It's tough for a coach to blame a team. They played extremely hard."
But they didn't always play smart, which was evident by the late-game turnovers, defensive breakdowns and inability to close out a Washington Wizards team that has been among the NBA's worst this season.
"You can play hard, but you have to play smart, too," Rivers said. "I thought we covered the first part of that. I didn't think we covered the second part of that very much."
However, having so many backups on the floor in one game allowed Rivers to get a better feel for who might be able to contribute who is not currently part of the Celtic's core group.
One of the better performers for Boston was Jermaine O'Neal.
Since he came back from left knee surgery, O'Neal has been a relatively solid defender.
On Monday, O'Neal had 15 points and 13 rebounds for his first double-double as a Celtics player. Boston also got a strong game from Jeff Green who also had his first double-double with the Green team, tallying 20 points and a career-high tying 15 rebounds.
"There were a lot of good things that came out of this game," Rivers said.
However, the Celtics did suffer yet another injury to a key performer, as Delonte West suffered a right ankle injury in the third quarter. West's early exit certainly had an impact on the game's outcome.
But for Boston, Monday wasn't about winning or losing.
It was about survival.
Prior to the game, the C's knew that a victory would have kept alive their chances of moving up in the playoff seedings ahead of the Heat. Although Miami had a one-game lead over Boston, the Celtics hold the tie-breaker so a win by Boston on Monday would have meant the Heat had to win at Toronto on Wednesday in order to secure the No. 2 seed.
Rivers admitted that the decision to sit guys against the Wizards was not an easy one to make.
"I usually don't seek out . . . it's gotta come from me, but on this one, I asked a lot of questions to our players, coaches, Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations . . . so this was a tough one," Rivers said. "But it was the right decision. Because at the end of the day, for us it has to be about our team and what's best for our team, even over seeding."