I asked the staff to give us the Celtics toughest matchup in the Eastern Conference. Knowing that most would likely say the Bucks, I also asked for their next choices.
I would say the Bucks for sure, but with them off the table, I will take the Cavs. Mobley and Allen are elite defenders and rim protectors that can make life difficult on the Jays driving to the rim. And Donovan Mitchell and Garland are elite guard scorers that have given the Celtics problems in the past and are capable of winning games close games late even against great defense.
If it’s not the Bucks, it’s still the Miami Heat for me. Their regular season record/performance is almost meaningless to me, I think come playoff time, that team will lock in and be a real problem. Bam has taken a leap offensively and the top 7 in their rotation is still really good. Oh, and they also still have maybe the best coach in basketball in Eric Spoelstra. They’ve been really good at home this season, 19-10 at the ASB, so this feels like a sleeping tiger to me. The less Jimmy Butler I have to see in the playoffs the better.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the most talented team in the conference outside of Boston, and the only team besides Philadelphia that can make an argument for having the best individual player in a series against the Celtics. They’re the biggest threat by default for those reasons.
Outside of the Bucks, though, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the team that gives me the most pause. The spotlight has shifted away from them a bit after their hot start to the season, but they’re quietly sitting on the second-best net rating (+5.8) in the NBA. Donovan Mitchell has been a world-beater this season and is a battle-tested playoff performer, and the frontcourt duo of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley have shown the ability to put stress on the Celtics’ frontcourt depth in a way few teams can manage. I’m not sure this is The Year for Cleveland — the lack of wing depth to check Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is a glaring weakness — but they’re deep, talented and on the upswing. A Celtics-Cavs playoff series would be a long one, I think.
Bucks are for sure the answer here but if I’m looking beyond them, I think the answer is the Cavs. They lack depth but their 2 big men are elite defensively and their backcourt is likely the best in the NBA. Donovan Mitchell is a big time playoff performer and gives them the late game scorer that can put a scare into any team and if Mobley decides the playoffs are the time to start taking a “leap” they could be trouble. If Boston were not at full strength, this could be a series that gives them some trouble.
I agree with the majority. It’s the Bucks, but after that, it’s the Cavaliers. They’ve played the Celtics tough in the regular season, and their athleticism is tremendous. Donovan Mitchell is a problem, and the pieces around him mesh well. I think the Cavs will be the next Eastern Conference team to win a championship after the Celtics, but it won’t happen this year.
It’s the Bucks, but the Cavs are a close second. The Celtics have typically struggled against interior size, something the Cavs have an abundance of. I’d still take the Celtics over either team, but there will be plenty of challenges on the road back to the finals.
Believe it or not, I’m kind of concerned about the Sixers this year (and the Bucks, of course). They’ve been playing some excellent basketball, and if Embiid and the rest of the crew are healthy come playoff time, they could be dangerous despite their past blunders against Boston. Even though the Cavs can pose some interesting problems, I don’t really view them as being ready or experienced enough to compete in a playoff environment, especially against the Celtics.
Since my answer is the Bucks, the next most difficult would be Miami. The Heat are currently in seventh place and could end up as Boston’s first-round opponent. We know they’re well-coached, and they have several players – Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry – who’ve put up big numbers often against the Celtics. Off the bench, Gabe Vincent has shown signs of being a Celtics-killer, and ex-Celtic Max Strus’ three-point shooting has tormented his former team on several occasions. Obviously, the Heat would also be motivated to gain revenge after losing Game 7 to Boston at home last season. The Celtics could definitely beat the Heat again, but it would be a real battle.
It’s the Cavaliers. Between their imposing front line and their smaller, shifty guards that the bigger Celtics lineups can have trouble guarding, Cleveland still looks like a team to fear despite their lack of wing depth to defend Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Bucks might be the hardest team to eliminate, but Cavs own the best chance of actually upsetting the Celtics due to their defensive posture mixed with Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland’s ability to match Brown and Tatum’s scoring output. Milwaukee could return to this status if Khris Middleton regains his old form, which we haven’t seen yet.
I think the Bucks are the clearly threat in the East, but the team I’d be more concerned about is the Cavaliers. I feel more confident with Boston being familiar with Milwaukee, and the way the Celtics defend Giannis is effective. Cleveland’s athleticism and versatility poses a daunting matchup problem, specifically Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Donovan Mitchell is having a fantastic season, and is a scary player in the clutch. They’re a close second the Bucks in my list of opponents to watch out for.
Giannis alone makes the Bucks the correct choice here. Adding in Holiday, a healthy Middleton, and an elite defense is just more fuel for the fire. Plus they have Championship experience, so it won’t be easy no matter what.
With all that said, I’m not ruling out the Cavs and 76ers as the toughest out. The Cavs might be a little too inexperienced and the Sixers stars have failed in the playoffs before, but all it takes is one great run to change those narratives forever.
Ultimately I’ll still say the Bucks, but those other teams aren’t far behind.