Pick your poison: Cleveland or Atlanta?
The Celtics put themselves in the driver's seat for a spot in the postseason with a win Wednesday night that vaulted them to 7th in the Eastern Conference. That would put them in line for a first round match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who locked in their position as the 2nd seed with their victory over Milwaukee.
Which poses the question of if the Celtics really want to keep their current spot to face LeBron and Co. or if they are better off sliding back to the No. 8 seed to face the Atlanta Hawks instead?
I know, it's a bit like asking if you'd prefer to be bludgeoned with a bat or a pipe - in the end, you're still going to get beat. As Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix told 98.5 The Sports Hub's Toucher & Rich on Thursday, Boston stands very little chance against either Eastern Conference heavyweight.
"I don't think either [series] goes longer than five games," said Mannix. "I'd love to sit here and say this upstart plucky bunch is going to be able to hang in there with Cleveland or Atlanta, but I just don't see it.
"It's just a matter of personnel at this point. It takes nothing away from what Boston has done to this point, but they just don't have the horses."
Mannix is probably right, but let's pretend for a second that the Celtics have even the slimmest of chances of pulling off a miracle upset in Round 1 of the playoffs. Which team are they more likely to do so against?
The Celtics dropped a pair of tightly contested games to each team early in the season, losing a 122-121 nail-biter at home against Cleveland on November 14, then falling in Atlanta 109-105 on December 2. The Hawks also beat the Celtics in more convincing fashion on Jan 14, 105-91.
Unfortunately these games don't tell us much because they were played back in the days before Boston cut ties with Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, while completely revamping their roster around the trade deadline. This is not the same Celtics team that lost those games in the first half of the season.
Since the All-Star break, Boston has been above average with an 0.8 Net Rating and 1.3 Point Differential. While that doesn't compare to the dominance of Atlanta or Cleveland, it's a significant improvement over where they were before the break (-2.2 Net Rating, -1.5 Point Differential). Since the beginning of February, the Celtics have posted a 20-13 record. Granted that's a small sample size, but that .606 winning percentage would move them ahead of the Toronto Raptors for the division lead and the No. 3 seed if they had been winning at this pace all season.
That makes the games in that stretch more relevant than what happened in the first half of the season. Boston beat Atlanta on an Evan Turner buzzer beater on February 11, but got crushed in Cleveland on March 3.
Atlanta has already clinched the top seed in the East and are on the verge of posting their first 60-win season in franchise history. So they probably aren't too concerned about slipping a bit in the second half, since we can attribute at least some of their statistical decline to the Hawks resting key players down the stretch.
Nonetheless, momentum heading into the playoffs can be a factor, so we can't completely overlook that Atlanta was better in the first half. Since the All-Star break, the Hawks are 16-8 (.666) with a 2.7 Net Rating and 3.5 Point Differential. Still very solid numbers, but not as strong as their season winning percentage (.756), Net Rating (5.8) or Point Differential (5.6).
Meanwhile, Cleveland has been dominant since the break, with an 18-5 record, 9.6 Net Rating and a Point Differential of 10.5 that is the second best in the league during that span. Cleveland has won 8 of their last 9 games with an average margin of victory of 13.1 points in those wins. After some rocky stretches throughout the season, the Cavs are peaking at the right time, making them as dangerous as anyone.
Usually the team with the best player on the court will win a seven game series. There's no doubt that when the Celtics face Cleveland, LeBron James is the best player on the court, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love serving as the second and third biggest stars of the series. Boston can't match Cleveland's star power, which puts them at a tremendous disadvantage in the playoffs.
Atlanta isn't exactly lacking in talent, boasting four players that made this year's All-Star team. Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver are all great in their own right, but none of them are on the same level as LeBron.
So, we want the 8th seed?
Apparently so. Boston isn't stopping LeBron on his quest to bring a title to Cleveland. Another team probably will when they get deeper into the playoffs, it just won't be the Celtics.
Atlanta thrives behind a brilliant head coach that has implemented a system that gets the most out of its players. Sounds a lot like what Brad Stevens is doing in Boston. Clearly, Atlanta does it better because they have more talent, but the similarities in how they are run could make the Hawks a better match up for Boston.
The top priority for the Celtics is making sure they win enough games to actually get into the playoffs. If they do manage to get in, doing so as the 8th seed might not be the worst thing for them.