By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- March has arrived, and just six weeks remain in the NBA regular season. It's about to get really interesting for the Boston Celtics and the rest of the Eastern Conference hopefuls.
Sunday evening's disappointing road loss to the lowly Pacers aside, the Celtics have been the hottest team in the NBA since the new year. Their defense has been ridiculously dominant, and has many thrusting Boston back into contender status. Some projections even have the Celtics as the favorite out of the Eastern Conference, with The Ringer examining the validity of those projections in length on Tuesday.
The conclusion? Maybe. The defense is stout and one of the more formidable units in the NBA, but the Celtics are far from perfect. They need to become a much better and more efficient offensive team to have a real shot against the likes of the Heat, Bucks, Bulls, 76ers and (eventually, we think) the rejuvenated Nets.
Basically, Boston's contender status remains a work in progress. The machines absolutely love them because of Ime Udoka's superior switching defensive system, and when it comes to the eye test, the Celtics are playing some phenomenally cohesive ball lately. If their offense ever completely clicks and they get hot from downtown, they'll be very dangerous come mid-April.
But their 18-8 record over the last two months hasn't earned them anything in the grand scheme. It made up for the team's slow start, but the Eastern Conference standings are a jumbled mess. Boston's 36-27 record is only good enough for the sixth seed at the moment, just 1.5 games ahead of the Toronto Raptors, the East's top play-in team.
Boston was idle Monday night, but seven other East playoff teams were in action. The Celtics gained some ground on the Cavaliers (who lost to the Timberwolves) and the Bulls (who fell to the top-seeded Heat), and a little more breathing room on the Nets and the Hornets, who lost to the Raptors and Bucks, respectively. As such, the Bucks gained a half-game on the Celtics while the Raptors inched a little closer.
We have reached scoreboard season in the NBA, with just about every night likely carrying some ramifications in the standings. The Celtics used up all of their forgivable slip-ups early in the season, making their margin for error all the more slim down the stretch.
And their stretch run begins with a very difficult (but very winnable) four-game slate over the next week. Tuesday night is the start of a three-game homestand that features visits from the Hawks, the Grizzlies and the Nets. Atlanta, at 29-31, is just hanging on to "postseason" hopes as the 10-seed in the East. The Hawks took both matchups in Atlanta, while the Celtics beat them in Boston two weeks ago as part of the team's nine-game win streak.
The Grizzlies are one of the best teams in the West (42-20 and sitting in the three-seed) and have one of the most exciting players in the NBA in Ja Morant, who is fresh off a 54-point explosion in a 118-105 win over the Spurs on Monday night. He has 98 points over his last two games while hitting 64 percent of his shots. Talk about a great test for that Celtics defense.
After a two-day break, the Nets will come to town. And they may actually look like the Nets, with Kevin Durant potentially returning for the Sunday afternoon matinee at TD Garden. Chances are we will not be seeing another 35- or 23-point blowout against the Eastern foe.
And while Charlotte is trending in the wrong direction, losing eight of their last 10, the Hornets and their stars have given the Celtics fits this season. Again, the C's used up their built-in hiccups in the opening months of the season, so another Pacers-like slipup won't slide in Charlotte next Wednesday.
This four-game stretch is a lot more important when you take a long view of the rest of the season, and see that 14 of Boston's 19 remaining games come against playoff teams. Four of those games come against teams ahead of them in the standings.
Fans and computers really love who the Celtics have been over the last two months, and the team's incredible run has them back in the conversation in the East. But with the competition really ramping up and every game carrying weight in the standings to close the season, there is no room for any slippage or dwindling play. Over the next six weeks, the Celtics need to be who they've been -- while becoming an even better offensive team -- against a lot of the teams they hope to measure up against when the postseason arrives.
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