Now that the All-Star break has come and gone, we’ve been doing a bit of looking ahead here at CelticsBlog. The Celtics have 25 games left to play, and as the calendar moves ever closer to April, the stakes continue to rise. We’ve already discussed key dates for the remainder of the regular season, as well as possible scenarios for how the Celtics could finish the year. Now, it’s time to think about the playoffs.
We know the major players already. Milwaukee, Toronto, Miami and Philadelphia loom large in potential second- and third-round series, but who are the Celtics likely to see in the opening round? Let’s look through the back half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture for some clarity.
If the Celtics remain in their current position at third in the conference, their most likely scenario is revisiting last year’s first round sweep against the Indiana Pacers. As with all of these potential match ups, the Celtics are the favorites here. The Pacers appear to be trending in the wrong direction in recent weeks, losing seven of their last ten games, including a 46-point scalding at the hands of the Raptors. Their chances of breaking into the top half of the Eastern Conference are beginning to fade. The Pacers unfortunately lost Jeremy Lamb to a torn ACL this week, too.
Still, this is a team that can’t be taken lightly. Despite recent struggles, they’ve shown flashes of very high level basketball. In an alternate reality where this team was fully healthy to start the season, they would very likely be closer to hosting a first round series rather than facing the Celtics in Games 1 and 2.
The X-factor here is Victor Oladipo who recently returned from a lengthy absence due to a knee injury. Oladipo missed the first round of the playoffs, and his absence may have been the biggest contributing factor behind their sweep at the hands of last year’s Celtics. Since arriving in Indiana as part of the Paul George trade, Oladipo has been the Pacers’ very soul. He’s the focal point of their offense, a crucial cog in their defense, and their most reliable crunch time performer all at the same time. Last year’s team showed a lot of fight in their push to the playoffs without him, but their ceiling just wasn’t the same in his absence.
Now that he’s returned, the question becomes whether he can play his way back into game speed in time to make a difference. Through his first eight games, he’s shown an understandable amount of rust, shooting just 33% from the floor and making little tangible impact beyond a game-tying triple against the Bulls. Indiana has 24 games remaining to figure out his fit with their current roster. If he’s up to the task, this could be a team nobody wants to see in the first round of the playoffs.
Looking over these lower-level playoff contenders, you’ll quickly discover an apparent trend: poor injury luck. All four of the teams on our list have gone without core pieces for significant chunks of the season, and while the Pacers recently welcomed Oladipo back to their lineup, the others likely won’t be so lucky.
In Brooklyn’s case, the missing piece (Kevin Durant notwithstanding) is Kyrie Irving. The Celtics will be denied any potential for cathartic revenge in a matchup between these two teams, as Irving has been shut down for the season after undergoing surgery on his shoulder.
The effect of Irving’s absence on this roster is unclear. It obviously lowers Brooklyn’s ceiling — losing any player of his stature would. But the Nets seemed flawed even with Irving on the court, losing 12 of his 20 games on the season. They have a strong core in Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen, and have split the season series with Boston 1-1 thus far. But collectively, they’ve seemingly amounted to less than the sum of their parts, and with Orlando ahead in the season series, they’re on the precipice of falling to eighth in the conference.
As you might expect, the injury bug has bitten the Magic as well. Orlando’s missing piece is less-heralded, but nonetheless important: forward Jonathan Isaac, who suffered a knee sprain at the beginning of January. Whether or not Isaac will return this season remains unclear, and his status impacts this Orlando team’s ceiling greatly. He’d been in the midst of a true breakthrough campaign, posting career-highs in nearly every statistical category, including simply comical marks of 3 blocks and 1.9 steals per 36 minutes.
Isaac doesn’t transform the Magic into a real contender by himself, of course. But he might be the difference between mediocrity and outright bad basketball. With Isaac off the court, they’ve posted a miserable -3.5 net rating, but with him on, that number jumps all the way to +0.3. Of Orlando’s rotation players, only Isaac and DJ Augustin (+0.7) have a positive net rating during their time on the court.
The Magic likely don’t have the firepower to pull off a first round upset, but that doesn’t make them a soft match up. They’re the kind of roster that could be immensely annoying to put away, playing a defense-first approach (8th in defensive rating) at the third-slowest pace in basketball. They’re Boston’s opposite: long and lanky. In a way, they’re not unlike last year’s Pacers, who put up a tougher fight than the 4-0 series outcome might suggest. If the Celtics draw them as a first round opponent, they’re going to have to work for a win.
For the Celtics to actually face the Wizards in a playoff series, a pair of remarkable comebacks are going to need to happen. The Celtics would need to play some nearly flawless basketball to hurdle Milwaukee for the top seed in the conference, while Washington would need to erase their own deficit against either the Magic or the Nets for the eighth.
As it stands right now, Washington has the better chance — barely. The Wizards currently sit four games behind the Orlando Magic in the race for final playoff spot, with the minor added inconvenience of having been swept by Orlando, 4-0, in the season series. This is a team that would certainly like to see the Nets continue to plummet. It’s a long shot, but there’s still enough time left to consider it a possibility.
In the unlikely event the Celtics do see Washington in the first round, they’d be dealing with one of the most explosive offenses in the entire NBA — and perhaps the league’s single leakiest defense. They’re far and away the least likely on this list to pull off a playoff series win, but they have perhaps the best healthy player of any of these teams in Bradley Beal — owner of two consecutive 50-point games! — and the kind of shooting upside that could earn them an upset or two on their home court.
Of Boston’s potential options for a first round playoff series, the Celtics may well match up best on Brooklyn. On paper, the Nets have more talent than any of these teams save Indiana. But they’ve never seemed to discover a real identity as a roster, perhaps due in part to Irving’s injury woes. They’re who I’d like to see the Celtics open up the 2020 postseason against.
What are your thoughts? Which of Boston’s potential first round foes would you like to see, and which would you rather avoid? Sound off in the comments down below and let us know what you think.