Now that the NBA is set to return, it’s time to take a look at the most likely 2020 NBA Playoff opponents for the Boston Celtics. Once we know the opponent, we’ll do a full breakdown of how Boston matches up with them. For now, this is a high-level look at those teams.
As things stand at the time of the pause of the NBA season, the Celtics have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Each team will play eight more games at Walt Disney World, in what the NBA is calling “seeding games”. When play was shut down, Boston was three full games behind the Toronto Raptors for the two-seed and 2.5 games (three in the loss column) up on the Miami Heat for the 3-seed.
With only eight games to play, it’s not very likely Boston will catch Toronto. The Celtics would have to finish three games better than the Raptors, and defeat Toronto in their likely head-to-head matchup at Walt Disney World. Even then, that would leave Boston tied with Toronto, and the tiebreakers still may not go their way. It’s equally as unlikely Miami will make up the ground necessary to catch Boston from behind, for all the same reasons.
That means the Celtics will probably be the three-seed when all is said and done. That’s not the worst thing. Catching the Raptors for second would be nice, because it makes for an easier first round matchup. But Boston should feel good about their chances of getting out first round no matter where their seed falls. And there is no homecourt advantage to worry about, should a second-round matchup with Toronto end up coming to pass.
Because the opportunity exists that Boston could bump up as high as the second-seed, we’ll cover the teams that could land as the seven-seed as well. In order, here are the Celtics most likely playoff opponents.
Talk about coming full circle. Boston lost at Philadelphia on the opening night of the season. This many months later, the Sixers are the Celtics most likely opponent in the first round. Philadelphia beat Boston three out of four times they played this season, but each game was competitive. The most recent matchup, on February 1, saw a Kemba Walker-less Celtics team roll over the 76ers by a 116-95 margin.
There are two main things to keep in mind, should this be Boston’s matchup. First, Ben Simmons hasn’t played since logging less than five minutes in a game on February 22. He’s reportedly healthy after suffering from a back impingement. But, as Celtics fans know better than almost anyone else, back injuries are tricky. The player can be completely healthy one day, then out the next day. Simmons’ status bears watching as things ramp back up.
The second is that the Sixers home/road splits were among the worst in the NBA. They were dominant in Philadelphia at 29-2. On the road? A miserable 10-24. That’s pretty rough. Without any home games left, Philly is the team that comes up most for a team that may struggle at a neutral site. Joel Embiid, who plays to the crowd as much as any player in the NBA, is particularly rough away from home:
Joel Embiid's home/road splits are... quite something.— Morten Stig Jensen (@msjnba) May 30, 2020
Home: 24.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 29.7 minutes. 121 ORtg, 99 DRtg
Away: 21.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 30.8 minutes. 105 ORtg, 110 DRtg
To add to that: Embiid shoots 50.1% at home. On the road, he’s at a brutal 43.6%.
Boston and Indiana split their two games this season. The third game most likely won’t be played. If it matters for anything, the Pacers were the Celtics most-recent opponent. Boston won at Indiana the night before the season shut down.
This matchup is hard to predict, as the Celtics played without Jaylen Brown in their win, while the Pacers were without Malcolm Brogdon. In the Indiana win, they were without Victor Oladipo, while Boston was without Marcus Smart.
This should be a fairly even matchup. Boston is the better defensive team (by a smaller margin) and better offensive team (by a larger margin), and has more depth. That will likely give the Celtics an advantage.
The Celtics beat the Heat twice already, and if things line up as expected, they’ll play once more in the “seeding games”. Miami would have to falter a decent amount to drop to sixth, making this matchup fairly unlikely. If they do meet in the playoffs, it’s the rare occasion when Boston actually has a slight size advantage. The Heat start games big, but go small pretty early on. That helps the regularly undersized Celtics match up easier.
In the two regular season matchups, Boston made the most of going at Duncan Robinson on a regular basis. In the playoffs, Brad Stevens has liked to hunt mismatches. Expect Boston to continue to go right at Robinson if they play.
Boston had minimal trouble with Orlando, as they won both regular season matchups by double-digits. It doesn’t look like they’ll meet at Walt Disney World either. If the Celtics can move up to the two-seed, and the Magic land as the seven-seed, this is a matchup Boston will love.
It doesn’t look like Orlando will have either Jonathan Isaac or Al-Farouq Aminu, although neither has been officially ruled out. Without the additional size in the Magic frontcourt, the Celtics will stay small and rotate various bigs against Nikola Vucevic. On the offensive end, Boston will attack Orlando with screen and rolls, and hunt mismatches where their wings can attack off the dribble.
The Nets have hung in the playoff race despite being without Kevin Durant all season and Kyrie Irving for all but 20 games. Brooklyn and Orlando are basically even for the seven-seed, so this is another matchup that only happens if Boston can climb to the two-seed.
If the Celtics do play the Nets, they’ve got some major advantages, despite Brooklyn having won two-of-three in the regular season. For one, the Nets won’t have either Durant or Irving. Neither is going to play at Walt Disney World.
Boston also has considerably more depth than the Brooklyn. If they can keep Caris LeVert from going bananas again, the Celtics should have this matchup well in hand.