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Checking in on the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break

With the Celtics leading the East at the All-Star break, we go around the East and dive into some potential playoff opponents.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The All-Star break always feels a bit weird. It “feels” like the midway point of the season, but in reality, the Celtics only have 23 games left in the regular season. It’s the final stretch and the Celtics have to be feeling great.

At 42-17, it’s one of their best records at this point in franchise history. So good in fact, it earned Joe Mazzulla a shedding of the interim title as head coach. Jayson Tatum is in the MVP race, Marcus Smart is back on the court, and Jaylen Brown could get All-NBA honors with a strong finish to the regular season. Their #1 seed lead over Milwaukee has shrunk to just .5 games, but what is the NBA without a little intrigue to close the season? As we barrel towards playoffs, potential matchups start to take shape, so no better time to check in with the East and see how the Celtics compare.

Milwaukee Bucks (41-17)
Record vs. Celtics: 1-1

If the Celtics’ OT loss to the Bucks is any indication, any series between these two teams is going to be very fun. Yes, the Celtics bench pushing the Bucks’ starters to the limit was entertaining to watch. No, I don’t think that means the Celtics starters are going to crush the Bucks come playoff time, but it does give us a better idea of how these two teams match up.

When the Celtics are hitting 3’s at that rate, they are almost unbeatable. The spacing and defense make Boston an incredibly challenging matchup for Milwaukee, regardless of who is out there. The one glaring weakness of this come playoff time is a simple question: what if the 3’s don’t fall? Do the Celtics have enough of a short and medium game, especially against a team in the Bucks that thrives in those situations? A worse Celtics team beat a worse Bucks team last playoffs in seven games — exciting to wonder what these versions of the teams will look like in another series.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Philadelphia 76ers (38-19)
Record vs. Celtics: 0-2

I file the 76ers under the “who knows” category. There are SO many monstrous question marks for them heading into the playoffs just as a team, add onto it a matchup against Boston and it seems almost impossible to overcome. Questions over effort from star players continue to hover around this team as well as Doc Rivers’ coaching, including their insistence to play a full bench lineup regardless of how often it gets roasted.

Looking at their two games against Boston and those same questions persist. Their most recent matchup was the epitome of the last 5 years of Celtics vs. 76ers. Philly comes in on a hot streak looking like they’ve figured it out. Boston is a little dinged up, giving Philly a perfect opportunity to finally get a win against a battered rival. Cut to the end of the game, Embiid has a terrible 2nd half, Doc Rivers makes some bad rotation decisions to end the game, and wham, Hospital Celtics get it done again. Until proven otherwise, we shouldn’t expect much different this summer.

Cleveland Cavaliers (38-23)
Record vs. Celtics: 2-0

The Cavs remain the only team in the NBA the Celtics have played multiple times and have not beaten at least once. The only other team that seemingly has Boston’s number is Orlando at 3-1, but we’re not going to get into the Magic today. For now, Cleveland has been one of the season’s best surprises.

The Garland-Mitchell combo has been really fun to watch and Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are both simultaneously in the DPOY race according to Vegas odds. Sure, they are +3300 and +4000 respectively, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t having a great season! Jokes aside, Cleveland is a difficult matchup for Boston. They don’t have a great Tatum defender, but the rest of the team plays such great support defense that they almost don’t need it. Add in some great late-game shot-making from one of the best backcourts in basketball and it could spell trouble for Boston. A tricky 1-4 2nd round matchup could be on the horizon.

Brooklyn Nets (34-24)
Record vs. Celtics: 0-3

This team is…dare I say, impossible to talk about from a playoff perspective? At least for now, I don’t think they even know what their best lineup/rotation is right now. They have so many wings, and so many small guards that can only shoot, and if wasn’t for Nic Claxton, they might have the worst frontcourt group in the Eastern Conference. And yet…they are still pretty good.

Jacque Vaughn has had a hell of a year coaching this team, but they remain above water. Mikal Bridges seems ready to take a huge leap as the #1 guy on that team, but who knows the outcome of that? For now, we’ll keep them on the League Pass watchlist and analyze them later.

New York Knicks (33-27)
Record vs. Celtics: 1-1

Such a fascinating group, this New York Knicks squad. Are they good? Are they bad? Is Josh Hart truly the answer to fixing their issues off the bench? Like the Nets, this team feels almost like they are in a holding pattern. Actually, scratch that, this team isn’t like the Nets at all. The point is, the Knicks are sitting in that middle ground between, “should we be nervous about playing them in the playoffs?” and “should we be looking forward to playing them in the playoffs?” I can’t decide, so in the middle they stay.

One thing to note, they’ve been weirdly average in MSG this year. 16-15 heading into the All-Star break, just something to keep an eye on for the rest of the season.

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images

Miami Heat (32-27)
Record vs. Celtics: 2-2

We’ll close it out with the final team over .500 in the Eastern Conference. Mikal Bridges scoring 45 points aside, this team still gives me pause come playoff time. Bam Adebayo is having a monster season and with Jimmy Butler inevitably turning it on when the calendar flips to the postseason, I’d prefer not to go through the whole Miami thing again.

They definitely aren’t the same team as last year on either end of the floor, their 3-point shooting is almost entirely focused around 3-4 guys, but with Eric Spoelstra at the helm, you never know what they have up their sleeve. As someone who was at Game 7 in Miami, it was super fun but I’d like to not have to do that this year. Maybe the play-in will take care of them…

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