BOSTON — A last opportunity to capture the Eastern Conference fell out of the sky for the Boston Celtics on Sunday.
With its chances of surpassing Cleveland for the top spot slipping away, Boston sat at home while the Cavs were blowing a 26-point, fourth-quarter lead and losing to the Hawks in overtime at Atlanta.
“To me, it’s never been about trying to get the No. 1 seed,” Cleveland’s LeBron James said after his triple-double wasn’t enough Sunday. “It’s just trying to play the greatest basketball we can every single night. Whatever happens, happens.
“Obviously, the last 10 games, we’ve been 5-5. We had some good moments, and we had some not-so-good moments. The best thing for our team is we want to go down the stretch and be healthy and put a game plan together.”
So, with two games left, the Celtics (51-29) are again tied for first in the conference as they head into Monday night’s home game against the Brooklyn Nets, who will supply Boston with perhaps the top pick in the 2017 draft.
Now, the tie is really not a tie. The Cavs, with a 3-1 series win, hold the tiebreaker. But Cleveland (51-29) has the back end of its back-to-back at Miami on Monday night and then finishes at home against Toronto, while the Celtics finish at home against the Milwaukee Bucks.
So, if both go 2-0, Cleveland gets the top spot. But if Boston sweeps, which could happen, and the Cavs lose one?
That is what makes Cleveland collapse on Sunday so big.
The Celtics bounced back from losses to the Cavs and Hawks with a win at Charlotte on Saturday night, blowing a 19-point lead, falling behind by seven and then rallying for the win.
Boston coach Brad Stevens gathered his players during a timeout when they were down seven midway through the fourth quarter Saturday and told them they can expect this kind of adversity in the postseason.
“At this point in the season, it’s just about figuring out ways to win,” Isaiah Thomas said after the game. “When (he) said that, it was real though. The playoffs are going to be different types of games where you just got to figure out a way to win.
“This was one of those games. They took all the momentum from us. We made a couple of plays on both sides of the floor and got a win.”
Thomas had another big fourth quarter, and now the Celtics have a real chance of finishing it off with two wins at home and 53 for the regular season. However, the Celtics did lose to the Bucks in Boston recently.
The Celtics — who will switch draft spots with the Nets, who secured the league’s worst record Friday night and will get a lottery pick — are 3-0 against Brooklyn this season. But the Nets are much better lately, winning four of their last five after going 16-59 in their first 75 games.
The Nets damaged the Bulls’ playoff chances with a win Saturday night. Brooklyn can hurt the Bulls again in the finale, at Chicago, on Wednesday night.
Spencer Dinwiddie and rookie Caris LeVert scored 19 points apiece in Brooklyn’s home finale Saturday night, Dinwiddie nailing four free throws in the final 13.6 seconds to seal the win.
“Even though we have lost a lot of games this year, we have played in a lot of close games,” LeVert said. “I think we played very smart down the stretch. It obviously showed on both ends of the court.”
And the Saturday win in the home finale was a big one for the Nets’ suffering fans.
“I was telling myself I have to bring that up, so I’m glad you asked. I just think it’s fantastic,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Sellout tonight, they’ve supported us all year. It makes you emotional. That’s important to us.”