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How do the Celtics stack up against the rest of the Eastern Conference?

We’re a few games into the first round of the playoffs, so let’s see how Boston’s future opponents (knock on wood) are looking.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

76ers (#3) vs. Nets (#6)

What you missed

The Nets’ aggressive double teaming of Joel Embiid has been the story of this series. In many scenarios, the likely MVP has made the right decision finding open players on the perimeter. In Game 1, those shooters made 21 of their 43 threes, leading to a convincing win. In Game 2, Philly persevered through a poor shooting, sloppy turnover night (eight Embiid turnovers) to win, all while only scoring 96 points (yes we’re in the year 2023). It’s 2-0 and headed to Brooklyn.

My outlook moving forward

Brooklyn’s defensive scheme has been fascinating thus far – double teams from almost every point on the floor against Embiid, completely exposing perimeter shooters. And if we’re being honest, it’s been effective to some degree. Joel hasn’t gotten nearly as many easy face-ups at the elbow as he normally does, and he doesn’t have time or space to bulldoze his way to the rim. So, he’s had to rely on shooters to hit open shots and make the right play, something his role players have done some of the time, but definitely not all of the time. The problem is that Brooklyn can’t capitalize on holding Philly to 96 points because when they’re on offense, they just don’t hit open threes. They get open looks, but they just don’t convert. This series should be over in 4 or 5 games.

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Two Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Implications for the Celtics

The Celtics would make a mockery of the Nets, so I’m not going to discuss that. No disrespect to them – they have tons of great role players and they play hard – but they just don’t have the offensive juice to compete against Philly, or Boston for that matter.

From the Celtics point of view, it’s been nice to get a look at what all-out double teaming has looked like on Embiid. Brooklyn isn’t very big, so I doubt that’s what Boston’s defense will look like considering the number of guys Joe Mazzulla can throw at him. Grant Williams, Al Horford, and maybe even Rob Williams are all better matchups against the big fella than Claxton is (Claxton is good defensively; he’s just very skinny). The C’s will probably see a far less passive Embiid if and when he faces Boston, but that’s fine. He’s looked tired at points during this first round, and he’ll be dealing with a far more physical and intense defense in the Celtics. I think Boston will wear him out through the course of seven games.

One more thing: James Harden just does not scare me. He can’t create space like he used to and I think the Celtics will really limit his ability to make plays in the pick and roll. Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum all seem like excellent matchups against him. It’ll be turnover and poor shooting percentage galore.

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game One Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Bucks (#1) vs. Heat (#8)

What you missed

On the other side of the Eastern Conference bracket, things have gotten surprisingly interesting for Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo took a hard fall on his lower back and missed most of Game 1. His injury, along with an outlandish 3-point shooting performance from the Heat, leaves the Bucks down 0-1 against Jimmy Butler and crew.

My outlook moving forward

I still love Milwaukee’s chances of advancing. Even without Giannis, Miami needed their best three point shooting performance of the season (15-of-25) to beat the Bucks, and I don’t see that being a sustainable mode of winning for a normally-bad shooting team like the Heat. More importantly, though, is the fact that the Bucks are “optimistic” Giannis will return for Game 2. With him in the lineup – even at 50% – the Bucks are a significantly better team on both ends, and thus a rough matchup for Miami. If Giannis somehow sits a couple games, I still like Milwaukee to win the series with the help of a seemingly back-to-normal Khris Middleton.

Implications for the Celtics

If, in some crazy universe, Boston faces Miami in the ECF, good luck to the Heat. Most likely, though, the Celtics would face the one-seeded Bucks if they both handle their business and make it there. Giannis’ injury, and how he looks moving forward, will be the primary story for the Bucks. Is it the type of injury that limits his explosiveness towards the rim, or will he look like his normal self right away? Anything short of full-throttle Greek Freak would be a monumental break for the C’s, especially because their physicality defensively would only make it more difficult on him.

The one worrisome development (from the Celtics POV) is Khris Middleton’s return to star status. The Celtics-killer played without a minutes restriction for the first time this season, and he looked like the guy that has given Boston fans headaches for years. He hit tough shot after tough shot (classic), and he was even able to use his strength at times to maneuver his way to the rim. His ascension could be dangerous for the Celtics.

Cavs (#4) vs. Knicks (#5)

What you missed

A complete rock fight in Game 1 of this series (unless your name is Jalen Brunson in the 2nd half) puts the Cavs down 0-1 and searching for answers on multiple fronts. Cleveland better figure some things out before game two, or else their chances of facing the Bucks in round two will quickly fade.

New York Knicks v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

My outlook moving forward

I think the Cavs will likely win Game 2; their backs are up against the wall, and I expect them to play with great intensity in front of their home fans. However, I don’t think they have what it takes to beat New York four times.

Cleveland has some major holes in their team. For one, they don’t have enough shooting. In their starting lineup, they play three non-shooters. Yes, you heard me right. THREE non-shooters, something unheard of in today’s NBA. This allows defenders to sag off the perimeter and dissuade Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell – normally two excellent penetrators – from getting into the paint, thus stunting their offense.

The other issue with the Cavs is their inability to play with physicality. Despite their daunting front line of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, the Knicks outrebounded Cleveland 51-38; that’s simply inexcusable for a team that prides itself on paint defense. And, unless they clean it up quickly, New York is going to take complete control of the series before they know it.

Implications for the Celtics

If the Celtics face Cleveland in the ECF, they’ll employ many of the same tactics that New York used to limit the Cavs’ offense in game one (and likely for the rest of the series). I seriously envision the playoff-Celtics completely dismantling Cleveland’s offense and eliminating any chance the Cavs have to score consistently. You just can’t play with three non-shooters against the Celtics defense, which has the perfect roster construction and scheme to combat that. And, if Cleveland opts for other lineups, they’ll be giving up too much offensively to Boston.

The Knicks would be a solid ECF opponent matchup for Boston. I wasn’t impressed with the offensive ball and player movement that the Knicks exhibited in game one. There’s lots of standing and watching, with Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson essentially taking turns isolating. I think Boston’s defense should have its way with that sort of offensive scheme. I mean, remember what they did to Brooklyn’s Kyrie/KD isolation offense in the playoffs last season? Now imagine the same thing with two worse scorers. Yeah… scary.

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