The Celtics will play Cleveland tonight in what is the most important regular season game in the Brad Stevens era to date. The Celtics have a golden opportunity to put a stranglehold on the top seed in the East, an achievement that is more important for them than it is for Cleveland. The Cavs have tons of playoff experience and two guys who would be the best player on the Celtics; Boston NEEDS home court advantage over Cleveland. Regardless, it looks like it’s down to four potential first round playoff opponents. Here is a breakdown on each team and the potential match up with the Celtics, including predicted outcomes.
The Chicago Bulls were left for dead when Dwyane Wade went down for the season a couple weeks ago. However, as of Monday they sit as the 7th seed in the East, with all of their remaining games against non-playoff teams. The Bulls have gotten increased contributions from Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine and Nikola Mirotic. They would likely have the best all-around player in the series in Jimmy Butler. And, of course, they still have that Rajon Rondo guy (a dangerous player considering he’s playing for his next contract). The Celtics pummeled Chicago on March 12 in one of Wade’s last games. Chicago lost some low post depth when they traded Taj Gibson, and the Celtics exploited that by out-rebounding the Bulls by 11 in the game on March 12. Given the plethora of options Stevens has to defend Butler, look for a quick series. I think this is the most desirable match up for Boston, followed by Indiana. Celtics in 5.
Besides the Knicks, no team in the East underachieved more this year than Indiana. However, the one advantage Indiana owns over Boston is the same as Chicago: Paul George would be the best player in the series. Another interesting factor is the bench comparison. While the Celtics have a very young bench with Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk and Jaylen Brown, Indiana offers proven veterans such as old friend Al Jefferson, Monta Ellis and Aaron Brooks. The Celtics beat Indiana 109-100 on March 22, when Paul George and Jeff Teague combined for 62 points. The other nine guys who played for Indy that night combined for 38 points. Holding down Indy’s secondary players would be key. Teague averaged more than 25 points in three games against Boston this year, he’s a guy the Celtics know well from last year’s first round loss to Atlanta. Regardless, I’d rather see this team than Miami. It’s hard to see George letting Indy get swept, but I see Celtics in five.
The Miami Heat were 11-30 (!) at the halfway point this year. All they’ve done since is go 26-10. Needless to say, this team would be a tough matchup. Few teams can match the toughness that guys like Smart, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley bring every night. Miami is one team that can with guys like James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Hassan Whiteside. The Celtics would have the best player in this series in Isiah, who had his memorable 52-point performance against the Heat on December 30. The Celtics were 4-0 over Miami this year, but three of those contests were before the Heat turned their season around. Erik Spoelstra is an excellent coach, one capable of matching wits with Stevens. The Heat bench went for 54 points in Boston’s 112-108 win on March 26, and that was without Waiters. They are only 3-4 since Waiters went out with an ankle injury, a sign that he is a potential wild card for them. They have the more difficult schedule to close the season compared to Indy, the team Miami is tied with for the 8th spot. A tough, physical series. Celtics in 6.
At first glance, Atlanta would seem to be a long shot match up for the Celtics. However, they are only one game up on Chicago, which has a much easier closing schedule. Atlanta’s best player, Paul Millsap, returned Sunday after an eight-game absence. The Hawks have limped to the finish line, winning just 2 of their last 11 games. The Celtics are well versed with this team after last year’s first round playoff series. Dwight Howard has replaced Al Horford, Dennis Schroeder has stepped into a starting role in place of Teague and Tim Hardaway, Jr. is one of the most improved players in the NBA this year. But this team clearly revolves around Millsap, something the Celtics know full well after he dropped 45 points on them in Game 4 of last year’s series. Any shot Atlanta has rests on him and his health. Given the veterans on this team and the Celtics’ struggle with quicker point guards, this seems like the worst match up for them IF Millsap is at full health. Assuming he will be, I’ll go Celtics in 7.