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Robb: Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference Too Much Of A Mess To Kill Celtics' Playoff Chances

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Boston Celtics are in the midst of a five-game losing streak. They've lost four straight games by double digits, allowing more than 100 points in each of those contests. It's been a tough week for the team that had admirably been able to keep things competitive in the first nine games of the Brad Stevens era.

It's important to note it's been an incredibly challenging slate for Boston during their recent slide. All five losses in the swoon have come against teams with .500 or better records. However, the schedule won't really give Boston much of a break in the coming days. Indiana, arguably the best team in the NBA, makes its way into town tonight, before the Celtics head down to Atlanta and face off with a talented Hawks team Saturday night.

With four straight dates against playoff teams on the docket before next week is over, we could be looking at a Celtics team that has a serious shot of hitting the double-digit mark in their losing streak.

A stretch like this would obliterate any dreams of the Celtics' making the postseason, right?

One might think that ... before taking a look around the Eastern Conference. Upon closer investigation, a startling reality becomes apparent: Despite the extended stumble, the Celtics are just another team in the middle of the pack right now in the East.

Incredibly, this 4-9 group is almost as close to a playoff spot (one game) as they are to the bottom of the Eastern Conference (1/2 game). They are also a mere 1.5 games out of the Atlantic Division lead, currently held by the sub .500 Toronto Raptors (5-7).

Ten of the 15 teams in the East have losing records. Many of these squads are full of revamped high-priced rosters (Brooklyn, Detroit, Washington, Cleveland) that were desperate to make some noise in the postseason this year. Instead, they are all struggling to mesh and reach mediocrity, just like the C's.

All of this subpar play in the East is not a facade. Most of these teams, especially in the Atlantic Division, are in big trouble, beyond just a bad start.

The Knicks (3-8) have dropped six of their first seven games at home, as they struggle to stay competitive defensively without Tyson Chandler, who is sidelined for at least another month with a leg injury. They'll continue to fight their way to wins when Carmelo Anthony gets hot but have limited weapons beyond him right now.

The Nets (3-8) have faced countless injuries to their starting five, along with a tough learning curve for new head coach Jason Kidd. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett appear to have left their best playing days behind in Boston, as well. They'll be better than this, but likely will have to scrap their way towards a postseason berth after digging this early hole for themselves.

The 76ers (5-8) have dropped four straight games after a fast start that featured wins over the Heat and Rockets. Reality is setting in for a roster full of rookies and veteran castoffs that doesn't have the talent to win night in and night out. They will continue to play hard, but will free fall in the standings, as their front office had planned.

The first-place Raptors (5-7) are stuck in no man's land. They have a roster that stars a pair of overpaid swingmen (Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan). This crew won't ever do much better than a first round exit, making new GM Masai Ujiri more likely to try to blow this team up with a big trade rather than ride out another middle of the road season.

So that's what the Celtics have facing them in their division this season. Chances are they won't be winning the division, but they won't be falling out of the race anytime soon either. Having played eight road games already (most in the NBA), along with nearly finishing an absolutely brutal schedule in the month of November, the worst of it should be over by Dec. 1.

In the meantime, the rookies will progress under Stevens. Jared Sullinger will continue to improve as he returns to form after an offseason back surgery. Eventually, Rajon Rondo will make his return to the lineup. Above all, Stevens will find a way to keep this group competitive during most nights.

And in the lowly Eastern Conference, that might be all it takes to stay relevant in the standings.

Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.


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