With the NBA Playoffs seemingly creeping right around the corner, the Celtics must look for the optimal first-round opponent. With a stacked Eastern Conference that sees Boston as the third seed, Boston would face Brooklyn if the season ended today. However, sitting 2.5 games out from first and tied with Philadelphia for second in the East, the Celtics have wiggle room to slip into an opportune position come mid-April.
Here are the best-case scenario first-round matchups for the Celtics.
The Celtics’ run to the Finals last season started off with a clean sweep of the Nets in the first round. Most notably, the first game between the two teams ended with a Jayson Tatum buzzer-beating layup. Despite the series being over in four games, the Nets hung around, only losing by a combined 18 points over the series.
One year later, the Nets have a completely new look to them. Both superstars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have moved on; the new face of the franchise is Mikal Bridges. The trades of Durant and Irving also saw Dinwiddie’s return to Brooklyn and Dorian Finney-Smith’s arrival.
Sitting at sixth in the East, the Nets will be lucky to fend off Miami. Since February 6th (Kyrie’s Departure), the Nets have gone 7-12. Durant left the Nets via a trade to Phoenix three days later. Trending downward since just before the All-Star break, the new face Nets will be the best-case scenario for Boston.
However, the Nets won’t hand a freebie to the second round. Coming off the 4-0 sweep in the 2021-22 playoffs, the Celtics took the first three matchups of the regular season. The new Nets took down Boston in an incredible comeback from Bridges’ 38 points, breaking the Celtics nine-game-win streak against Brooklyn starting from the 2021-22 regular season.
Even though the Nets handed the Celtics a loss, they’re quite possibly the easiest team to beat in the Eastern playoff race. And matching up with them at sixth in the conference rids the possibility of a randomized play-in team.
The Celtics have won both matchups against Atlanta this season, with the last meeting being the final game for both teams. The first meeting saw seven Celtics players score double-digit points; the last matchup saw Tatum dropping 34 points and 15 rebounds.
On paper, the Celtics are the team embodiment of a nightmare for the Hawks. The two Boston superstars in Tatum and Brown tower over the Hawks’ superstar, Trae Young.
For Young, the Celtics surely feel comfortable sticking DPOY Marcus Smart to slow him down. But for Tatum and Brown, the Hawks don’t have many options to slow them down. In the two games they’ve played thus far this season, Brown has a combined 46 and Tatum has a combined 53.
As it is with every other playoff team, the Hawks aren’t being run through. Trae Young is a sharpshooter when it comes to shots beyond the arc, but they shoot the second least number of 3-pointers in the league, only behind the Chicago Bulls. The Hawks rank second in field goal attempts per game at 92.3.
Any other year, the Toronto Raptors would be a threat to end the Celtics’ season. However, with 10 games remaining in the season, the Raptors don’t seem to have made things work with their current roster. They’ve been led so far by Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet.
Sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Division and ninth overall in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors are clinging onto their play-in spot. They sit in the bottom third for most statistical categories.
The two teams have only faced once in the playoffs before the epic bubble matchup that saw a seven-game series. This series saw the Celtics move into the next round, bound to lose in the ECF to Miami.
This season the Celtics and Raptors have faced four times, with two more games to be played in April. The Raptors took the first two and the Celtics took the last two games played. Both Raptors’ wins came in overtime.
Even though this year hasn’t been great for the Raptors, their history with Boston still is of concern. Nick Nurse continues to show why he’s still at the helm and an All-Star performance this season from Siakam could pose a threat. But out of every other team this year, the Raptors might not have an answer for the Celtics.
The Celtics only have 10 more games, which will decide where they land in the final standings. Will they stay in third or hop over the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers for second?
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(Featured photo credited to Al Bello/Getty Images)