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The path of least resistance

What needs to happen the rest of the regular season for the Celtics to have the best chance of making The Finals

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets
Ime Udoka coaches against the Nets.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With sixteen games remaining in the regular season, the Celtics are currently fighting for home-court advantage in the playoffs.

They’ve passed the slumping Cavaliers and are just a half-game back of the Bulls, who have lost five straight. While it’s unlikely the Celtics will catch the No. 1 Heat – they sit five games back at the moment – they do have a legitimate chance to end up second or third in the East if they keep winning and catch a couple breaks.

Many teams are clumped together, and a lot still has to be sorted out. The Celtics have the sixth-toughest remaining schedule, and games against the Heat, Bulls and Bucks late in the season could end up playing a major role in determining their fate.

In the meantime, it’s never too early to look at how the next few weeks and months could play out.

Assuming the #1 seed is out of the picture, the Celtics would benefit greatly from passing the Bulls and Bucks to get to #3. Boston leads the season series with Milwaukee, 2-1, so that April 7 game could carry major weight.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Naturally the 2-seed is better than the 3, but let’s be realistic and say they get the 3. If they face the Cavaliers in the first round, the Celtics have the definitive edge. The Cavs are young and will likely be heard from for years to come, but they’re currently not a major threat in the East.

Jarrett Allen is out indefinitely with a fractured finger and Collin Sexton is out for the year. Evan Mobley and Darius Garland have bright futures, and Lauri Markkanen is a tough matchup for anyone, but the Cavaliers don’t have the firepower to hang with the Celtics Boston’s physicality, shot-making ability and playoff experience would be too much.

From there, the Celtics could face the 76ers, which sounds like a bad outcome but actually could be an ideal one. The 76ers are arguably the most skilled team in the East, but they’re still getting acclimated and don’t pose as much of a threat as the Heat or Bucks. The Celtics’ dominant showing against Philly a few weeks ago was an outlier, but Boston has the pieces to slow the Sixers down.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

With Robert Williams, Al Horford and Daniel Theis all in the mix, the Celtics can throw many looks at Joel Embiid and make it tough for him. They can also do the same with Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on James Harden. They’ll get theirs, but Tatum and Brown have a superior supporting cast.

If the Heat and Bucks match up in the other conference semifinal, there’s a chance that series could go six or seven games. It would likely be extremely physical and taxing. One series often has an indirect effect on the next, particularly if it’s a grind. Avoiding those two teams early is the best bet for the Celtics so Miami and Milwaukee can beat each other up.

The Bucks are ultimately a better matchup for the Celtics than the Heat, because the Heat have the personnel to guard Tatum and Brown – or at least keep them in check. Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry are all elite defenders, and with Victor Oladipo healthy and Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Gabe Vincent all in the mix, they have the most depth of any team in the conference. There’s a reason they’re the 1-seed. If that matchup happens, Celtics fans should root for the Bucks.

The Celtics can beat any team in the East, but their path to the Finals certainly isn’t an easy one. Cleveland, Philadelphia, Milwaukee is the realistic outcome that gives them the best chance to get to the promised land.