What a difference a year can make.
A year ago the Boston Celtics entered the postseason as the scrappy underdog that few took seriously. A roster that was reshaped on the fly finally started showing signs of becoming a cohesive unit, fueling a late season surge that pushed them into the No. 7 seed in the East. Despite finishing strong, their postseason trip would be short-lived, as the overmatched Celtics were swept in the first-round by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As we head into the postseason this year, we find that the Celtics have taken a slight step up to the No. 5 seed, yet expectations are much higher. This year there shouldn't be anyone counting this team out, and there is optimism that they can even win at least one series.
Not that they are getting ahead of themselves yet. In typical Brad Stevens fashion, this team is looking to take this series one game at a time.
"We just gotta win one game," Isaiah Thomas told reporters after Wednesday's game. "We need to get that off our back. We didn't win one last year so hopefully we can sneak one out of, at least one at Atlanta, and then build on that. We're ready to show the world what we're capable of doing."
Unfortunately, one game is all the Celtics have been able to win against the Atlanta Hawks this season. After defeating the Hawks in their first meeting back in early November, Boston dropped the next three against Atlanta by an average margin of over 14 points. That includes a double-digit loss last Saturday in a game where the Celtics struggled to contain Paul Millsap, who went off for 31 points and 16 rebounds.
Boston's thrilling comeback victory against the Miami Heat in Wednesday night's regular season finale should have pushed them into the No. 4 seed, setting up a first-round match-up with home court advantage against a Heat team they swept in three games this season. Except Atlanta choked away their game in Washington, dropping them into a complicated four-way tie with Boston, Miami and Charlotte.
Despite going undefeated against Miami and having the best overall head-to-head record against the teams in this tie-breaker mix, Boston has to settle for fifth. Miami gets the third seed by virtue of being a division winner, while Atlanta leaps over Boston due to their 3-1 record against them.
So that leaves us with the Celtics opening the postseason on the road in Atlanta. It's a difficult matchup, but as Thomas pointed out, this Celtics team has to stay focused on getting that first win. All they need to get the ball rolling is to get that first taste of postseason victory that eluded them last year.
One win is all the Celtics need to build confidence that they can shine on the postseason stage. Give this team an opening and they'll show the world what they can do.