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Ranking potential Celtics first round playoff opponents

There are five potential playoff matchups for the Celtics. Who’s the best one? Who’s the worst? And who’s in between?

Toronto Raptors v Miami Heat Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The NBA playoffs are less than two weeks away, but first-round matchups are far from set in stone. The Celtics, who are fairly locked into the two seed (barring a Bucks collapse) have five realistic playoff opponents: Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, or Chicago Bulls. Obviously, each of these teams have different likelihoods of falling into the seventh seed, but that won’t stop me from preparing for and becoming anxious about every possible outcome.

So, we’re going to rank these teams based on who the Celtics should want to face in the first round (the first team being the best/easiest matchup, and the fifth team being the most daunting one).

Here we go. Disagreements are welcomed in the comments.

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

1. Atlanta Hawks

There’s not much about Atlanta that worries me, to be honest. Despite having a better than average offense, the ways in which they operate on that end of the floor shouldn’t pose too many problems for the stout Celtics defense.

Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks run the most pick and rolls in the NBA, as they’re looking to utilize Young’s quickness and decision making to create easy floaters or dunks at the rim. The C’s, though, have the lateral quickness and versatility on the perimeter to handle that – they can switch on screens without worrying about getting blown by on the perimeter or allowing a size advantage to Clint Capella and/or John Collins. Remember when the Heat bottled up Trae Young last year in the playoffs? That’ll happen again if the Celtics get their chance.

On the offensive end, the Celtics have numerous potential attack points. Switch hunting literally any Celtic onto Trae Young should be a solid offensive catalyst, and the Hawks’ weak transition defense should struggle against the best offensive transition duo in the NBA in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (the stats speak for themselves, so only @ me after you’ve visited

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

2. Brooklyn Nets

Sure, Mikal Bridges is playing well. Fine, he’s actually playing really well. And maybe I’m not overreacting enough, but until I see him being an effective number one offensive option in the playoffs, I simply won’t view this version of the Nets as a serious threat to the Celtics. They don’t have the offensive chops or chemistry required – given their lack of isolation scoring talent – to beat the Celtics four times in a playoff series.

To put it plainly, the Nets’ roster of 3 and D assassins simply doesn’t have the offensive firepower to succeed against the Celtics juggernaut defense.

Defensively, they have the individual talent and switchability to cause some real problems for the Celtics, but I just don’t see them coming together quickly enough to be dominant on the defensive end (which is what they would have to do to make a run).

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

3. Toronto Raptors

On paper, the Raptors look kind of dangerous. They have big, long, strong and athletic wings who can defend and compete with the Jays, and they have some other pieces around those guys to fill out a pretty logical roster roll-wise. They feed off of their athleticism and offensive rebounding, and their switchability on defense could potentially cause some chaos offensively for Boston. In a lot of ways, the Raptors are built like the Celtics.

There’s just one difference, though, which is that the Celtics are slightly better in almost every way. They have better individual players (defenders, scorers, creators), but they also play better and more cohesively as a team.

There are times when the Raptors get caught ball watching offensively and fall into a lack of movement and pace. This is something I expect the Celtics to take advantage of, and it makes me less fearful of the Raptors offensively despite their solid rating on that end (9th in the league).

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

4. Chicago Bulls

The Celtics have had some trouble with the Bulls this season, and that was without a healthy and seasoned Alex Caruso, who elevates the Bulls defense to a completely different level.

Chicago surprisingly has the 5th best defensive rating in the league this year, and that’s with Nikola Vucevic as their rim protector (hint: he’s not good at that). Good thing for the Bulls is that the Celtics have trouble getting to the rim and sometimes settle for quick threes, which plays right into their playbook defensively. The Celtics will have to attack the rim if they want to fully expose this Bulls squad.

Obviously, the Celtics should still handle the Bulls, who have a take-turns offense that sometimes resembles AAU ball. Mid-range isolation one possession for DeMar DeRozan, idle post up for Vucevic the next. They don’t make me nervous on that side of the floor, but we’ve also seen Zach LaVine and Derozan get very hot, so that always keeps things interesting.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

5. Miami Heat

This is a pretty obvious one. The same team that took the Celtics to seven games last season could stand before them in the first round this year, and that’s a tough one to swallow.

Yes, the Heat have struggled offensively this season and don’t have the same ball and player movement that made their offense more effective the last few playoff runs. However, they have Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and a supporting cast that always seems to raise their level come playoff time, and that’ll always make me nervous.

Despite their struggles this season offensively, the Miami Heat defense has withstood (won’t it always?). They’ll still throw out janky zones that’ll cause problems, and they’ll still pressure the ball and fight through screens like their lives depend on it. And for those reasons, I am out on playing Miami in the first round.

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