The slow start for the Celtics coupled with the vicious pace at which the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks won early has Boston looking up in the standings. With a dozen or so games left, it’s time to highlight the most favorable playoff scenarios.
A team deemed by all to be prohibitive East favorites should be able to reach the NBA Finals no matter its path. They haven’t played like it though, and it’s fair to say they’d be underdogs entering a series as the road team against either Toronto or Milwaukee.
At 42-27, following their win over the Kings on Thursday, the Celts stand as the fifth seed in the east. They’re two games back of the 76ers and Pacers for third, 6.5 games ahead with breathing room on the sixth-seeded Nets and seven games between them and Toronto for #2. The C’s play Indiana twice more (1-1) and Philadelphia (3-0) one more time.
If the Celts grab the fourth or fifth seed, they’ll be lined up against the Pacers or 76ers in round one. The Celtics have won 21 of 24 against Philly in recent years, but have only played them once since they’ve assembled Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
As for Indiana, they’ve taught everyone a lesson in buying into assumptions. The Pacers lost Victor Oladipo to a catastrophic knee injury on January 23rd in a win over Toronto and then lost four straight. Fools, possibly including me on our podcast, thought they’d drop as far in the East standings as the games remaining would allow. Expect the unexpected, because they’ve won 12 of 18 since then behind 21.6 points per game from Bojan Bogdanovic with five others in double figures.
If Boston, winners of four of its last five, still manages to surpass those two, then they’ll likely see the Nets, Pistons, or more improbably the Heat in Round One. That would guarantee home court, although potential challenges remain. Detroit has won 14 of 21 with Blake Griffin averaging 22.5 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game over that same stretch.
Brooklyn, cooling off of late at .500 over their past 22, could be the most entertaining and manageable of Boston’s round-one options. The Nets play with electric pace and shoot a ton of threes, led by castoffs now thriving in their new home like All-Star D’Angelo Russell. Beside the obvious comeback story from their trade with Boston, they remind me of the Celtics’ first winning teams after the Brooklyn trade from 2015-2017. By the way, the hero of those teams, Isaiah Thomas, returns on Monday with the visiting Nuggets.
None of these teams should stun the Celts in the first round if they are who they thought they were in the preseason. Milwaukee and Toronto’s emergence superseded even what I imagined from the two, and my expectations were high. Those Round 2 match ups are the real consideration for the C’s. Both of those opponents are incredible. I view Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and new addition Marc Gasol as the favorites in the East, and Boston’s lost seven straight in Toronto.
Others may reasonably view MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo and an improved Bucks cast than the one that took the C’s seven games last year as the biggest threat. If the Celtics are chasing the NBA Finals, they’ll probably have to go through both.
The Celtics can do little to determine their path directly outside of winning every game, or, as Adam Himmelsbach suggested, for draft purposes. The difference between Indiana and Boston’s position right now is the 26th pick as opposed to the 21st.