The Boston Celtics have only two regular season games remaining and then it will be time to begin the NBA playoffs. The Celtics are just a win or a Raptors loss away from clinching both the Atlantic Division title and at least a top two seed in the Eastern Conference, leaving only a handful of possible first round matchups on the table.
There are five teams that could see Boston in the first round! Here’s a breakdown of each one.
Atlanta Hawks (41-38, currently fifth)
A lot would have to happen for Atlanta to drop down and set up a rematch with the Celtics, but it would be fun. The Hawks played right with teams like the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards most of the season and it seemed like they’d be able to put up a strong fight for home court advantage in their first round series, but a seven game losing streak in the middle of March really put those plans on hold and now they’ll have to go on the road in the opening round for the first time in three seasons. Atlanta has recovered nicely since their little slip up, winning four of their last six including a 123-116 beat down of the Celtics and a very impressive win over a Cleveland Cavaliers team that played everybody while the Hawks rested starters Dwight Howard, Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore. Boston would easily be favored in a series against the Hawks and it would be nice to get some revenge over last year, but there are still better possible matchups out there that would be even more in the Celtics favor.
Milwaukee Bucks (41-39, currently sixth)
One more win in their final two contests will likely give the Bucks at least the sixth seed and Boston and Milwaukee will end their seasons against each other on Wednesday night, which could be a game where Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson actually see some minutes and basically allow the Bucks to get that victory. While it doesn’t seem like the Celtics and Bucks will meet up in the opening round, don’t be surprised if Milwaukee is their opponent later on down the line. A second seeded Celtics team would play the winner of the three/six matchup and nobody would be shocked to see a hot Bucks team take down somebody like the Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors. Milwaukee was once sitting at 22-30 and they’ve played great basketball the last few months in order to climb back above .500 and put themselves in this position, although they do seem to be cooling off a bit and have lost three of their last four.
Indiana Pacers (40-40, currently seventh)
Rebounding seems to be one weakness that has been tied to the Celtics all season, but you can almost cross that off in a series against Indiana. Boston currently sits at 27th league wide in terms of overall rebounding differential, but the Pacers are almost as bad and sit only one slot ahead of them in 26th. Outside of that, Indiana is a very average basketball team across the board and it’s probably why they sit with perfect .500 mark right now. They’re 16th in scoring, 14th in scoring defense and they’re also 0-3 this year against Boston. The Celtics and Pacers are currently slotted to play against each other if the regular season ended today, and it should be a matchup that fans across New England feel good about. While it’s always good to see a team that you had plenty of regular season success against, Indiana also hasn’t played well the last couple of months and they’re just barley holding onto a playoff spot. The Pacers looked like they were going to hold down a nice spot in the middle of the Eastern Conference when they were sitting at 29-22 in mid February, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing for them ever since and they’ve gone just 11-18 since with only a 6-13 record against teams above .500 during that stretch.
Chicago Bulls (39-41, currently eighth)
The Bulls really aren’t that good on paper and they’ve gotten ice cold as a team periodically throughout the year, so they should probably be a welcomed matchup for the Celtics. Perhaps the only scary thing about them is that Chicago seems to quietly have another gear to kick into when put on a big stage, as “National TV Rondo” has seemingly rubbed off on the entire roster. They’ve knocked off a number of top teams throughout the season – including the Celtics twice and Cleveland Cavaliers four times – but the flip side of that is the fact that the Bulls also lose a number of really bad games that you’d think a team with this roster should easily win. Just look at their most recent stretch. Fred Hoiberg’s crew has won six of their last nine to put themselves in playoff position, but the three losses were to the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks – playing without Kristaps Porzingis – and the Brooklyn Nets. They’ve had wins against competitive teams such as the Bucks, Hawks and Cavaliers during that nine game stretch, but the amount of eggs that this team has laid all year probably makes them an attractive playoff matchup because you’re bound to get a few during a seven game stretch.
Miami Heat (39-41, currently ninth due to tiebreak)
This is probably the last team that the Celtics want to see in the playoffs. Boston has played pretty good basketball the last few months and it’s even been enough to give them a realistic chance at landing the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But even with the Celtics playing great basketball, the Heat have pretty much kept pace with them for the last three months and that makes them a team you don’t want to see in the playoffs. Miami is 29-17 since the calendar flipped to 2017, which is only two games worse than the 31-15 mark that Boston has put up. These records even flip in Miami’s favor when you consider the fact that they lost six of their first seven in January and are 28-11 since January 17th. Teams that finish seventh and eighth in a conference often get the spot because they rise up among the final playoff contenders and get a little hot down the stretch, but it’s never a three month stretch of playing on par with the elite teams of their conference. Even two years ago when Brad Stevens led the Celtics on a mad charge to earn the first playoff berth of his coaching career it was only a strong month and a half stretch, not a stretch that covers over half of the NBA’s 82 game schedule. Miami is clearly better than their record indicates and because Boston doesn’t appear to have another gear like the Cavaliers do, there’s a legit argument that these two teams would be very evenly matched and it would be almost a coin flip to decide the winner.