The eight teams positioned for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference have little chance of changing, if only at the bottom of the standings. Where they fall into any of the seeds remains up for grabs during the eight seeding games to kick of the NBA’s restart down in Orlando.
The third-seeded Boston Celtics sit three games behind the Toronto Raptors and 2.5 games ahead of the Miami Heat. The Philadelphia 76ers, Boston’s projected first-round match up, could swap spots with the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers, who they have an identical record with.
Such possibilities create a lot of hypotheticals for every team involved, rendering preparation for every scenario crucial.
More goes into winning a playoff match up than just a single point of emphasis, but failure to properly address it could result in an early playoff exit. For a Celtics team looking to make a deep run, expect a coach like Brad Stevens to have everything covered.
8. Orlando Magic: put up points
It’s a simple strategy, isn’t it? Score more than your opponent. Nothing groundbreaking there, but it’s an acknowledgement of what gives the Orlando Magic the slightest of chances in a potential playoff match up.
Orlando respectively ranks 10th in defense, but just 24th in offense with the fourth-fewest points per game. That’s how they’ve operated since Steve Clifford took over before last season, relying on their ability to prevent points to mitigate the impact of a subpar offense.
It’s how the Magic stole Game 1 of their first-round series with the Toronto Raptors last season. Toronto was held nearly 13 points below its regular season average, opening the door for D.J. Augustin’s heroics to stun the masses and secure a victory.
The Celtics hold the fifth-best offense in the NBA. If that production holds true to form, Orlando doesn’t possess the firepower to keep pace.
7. Brooklyn Nets: don’t let your guard down
The Brooklyn Nets already lacked the strength of a full roster throughout most of this season. Kevin Durant has yet to suit up with a torn Achilles. Kyrie Irving was limited to just 20 games and was shut down to undergo shoulder surgery.
What the organization is bringing down to Orlando is the remains of another tea down that includes the absence of Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, and Taurean Prince.
Prince is the fourth Nets player – including DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie and Wilson Chandler – to opt-out of the league’s restart. Nets are eligible to sign four substitute players. Team departed this evening for Orlando. https://t.co/CC7nMZFm4i— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 7, 2020
The playoffs are still a likely goal for Brooklyn given the similar barren state of Washington’s roster. The absence of more than half their rotation leaves Brooklyn laughably thin, to the point where they’ve become a haven for veteran free agents like Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley.
Nevertheless, even the most superior of opponents will have to claim four games against the Nets, including Boston. The Celtics don’t have to look that far back into the past to know that they should never underestimate the Nets. Right before the suspension of the season, Brooklyn exploded for 51 points in the 4th quarter in a comeback win in Boston. Anything can happen and in an unprecedented environment where every game brings players that much closer to a potential injury, it’d be best to do so as quickly as possible.
6. Philadelphia 76ers: don’t let the other guys go off
The Philadelphia 76ers’ offense has struggled all season long to the tune of the 18th spot in offense rating. And yet they went 3-1 against a Celtics team they’re currently slated to match up against in the first round. But how?
A top-10 defense certainly helps. All three of Philly’s three victories saw Boston score below their season average, including two of less than 100. It was Boston’s fourth-ranked defense, however, that plagued them against the Sixers, unable to limit a hit-or-miss supporting group all season.
In the three losses, the Celtics allowed at least four Sixers to score at least 14 points. Their lone victory came when that number was down to just two.
Philly remains a mess of conflicting pieces, vastly contributing to their year-long underwhelming performance. An all-around offensive effort alleviates perhaps their biggest concern, making it more difficult for even an elite two-way team like the Celtics to handle them.
5. Indiana Pacers: limit their work around the elbow
Domantas Sabonis’ brute strength and nifty passing ability make him a tough cover inside the 3-point line. The Indiana Pacers are acutely aware of such prowess, having molded their offense around him in the absence of Victor Oladipo, resulting in a first-time All-Star appearance for the big man.
No team scorers more via the elbow than Indiana, where Sabonis tops the individual leaderboard in such points per game. As seen below, the Pacers love initiating a two-man game to get their leading scorer into that space with a mismatch properly taken advantage of.
Boston has several options in similar situations. Their personnel makes it far less risky to simply switch on that pick-and-roll, especially if it ends up placing the always stubborn Marcus Smart on Sabonis. An earlier rotation by Brad Wanamaker perhaps keeps Sabonis from getting downhill, allowing Daniel Theis to recover quicker following a 4-on-3 advantage for Indy.
The answer for Brad Stevens will likely lie in the circumstances at any given moment. No matter the solution, its proper execution will expose the Pacers’ lack of shot creators that contribute to the 17th best offense in the league.
4. Miami Heat: 3-point defense vs. offense
Boston has been one of the premier 3-point defending teams this season, ranking 10th in opponents makes per game and third in percentage. The Miami Heat’s perimeter game has been equally adept at the offense end, where they’re sixth in makes per game and No. 1 in percentage.
These conflicting forces came to a clash in favor of Boston during their two meetings this season. The Heat made just 30.7 percent of its triples and two losses followed.
Miami actually shot 14-of-38 from downtown in a December 4th defeat in Boston, but six of those makes can be attributed to Jimmy Butler in a career-high tying effort. Remove the outlier performance from a 24.8 percent shooter on the year — and their 10 attempts — and Miami was just 8-of-28, or 28.6 percent.
The dangers of Miami’s perimeter potency is real, especially for a team that is otherwise indifferent to scoring inside the arc. Only two other teams — the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets — see less of their points come from 2-pointers than the Heat.
Nineteen of their 24 losses have come after shooting below their season-long average. The recipe is clear. That says nothing of the trials to come for the Celtics while trying to execute it.
2. Toronto Raptors: continue to take care of the basketball
Not only do the Toronto Raptors surrender the fewest points per game, but their multi-layered efforts have allowed them to wreak defensive havoc to the tune of the second-most forced turnovers and points off turnovers as well as the #1 spot in fast break points per game.
Those crucial elements to the Raptors’ success is what makes the absence of such mistakes so important in a potential postseason match up for Boston, a team that surrenders the seventh-fewest TOs per game.
Limiting turnovers doesn’t produce a direct route for the Celtics to beat the Raptors in a seven-game series. They had 14 in a December 28th loss and 22 in a victory on Christmas Day — although that W did come in the absence of Pascal Siakam.
Nevertheless, Toronto’s transition offense is elite, ranking inside the 93rd percentile. Taking care of the ball keeps them in the half court, where they’re much less threatening at 16th in points per possession.
1. Milwaukee Bucks: capitalize on pull-up shooting
To rank #1 in defense, the Milwaukee Bucks employ a strategy that dares opponents to beat them with a pull-up jumper. Brook Lopez will not step up on a screen, opting instead to drop down and protect the paint and live with the results.
Those results speak for themselves. On the backbone of the league’s top defense, Milwaukee possesses the NBA’s best record for the second consecutive season. It would take a lot to beat them come playoff time, but the Celtics might have the tools to poke holes in Milwaukee’s stifling efforts.
Boston attempts the third-most pull-up jumpers per game and, in terms of effective field goal percentage, ranks #1 in the league in efficiency on such shots. They’re also second in pull-up triples made and attempted (and percentage).
Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum lead the way, placing ninth and 14th respectively among individual points per game.
It’s not the most ideal shot in basketball, but if the pull-up jumper is what Milwaukee chooses to give up, best to have the players who can capitalize on it for a fighting chance against one of the league’s most favorable title contenders.