The Boston Celtics have exceeded expectations this season with their stellar play. But with the postseason looming, their sustained success also has raised the bar.
The Celtics enter Friday night’s game against the Houston Rockets entrenched as the No. 3 seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. They’re 13 games over .500, a mark that if the season ended Friday would be the team’s best winning percentage since the 2010-11 season and would surpass even that of the 2011-12 squad that reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
Plenty still can change with 17 games left in Boston’s season, especially in the crowded East. But the C’s likely won’t catch the Toronto Raptors, who are five games ahead of them at No. 2. So, if Boston can maintain its one and a half-game lead over the No. 4 seed Miami Heat, what does its playoff future look like?
There are plenty of possibilities, as the East’s fourth and ninth seeds are separated by just four and a half games. First, we’ll break down Boston’s four most likely first-round playoff matchups and rank them on a 1-4 scale, with 1 being the most favorable matchup for the C’s and 4 being the least favorable. Then we’ll offer our prediction for how far the Celtics can go.
1. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets are one of the hottest teams in basketball, but they easily could land in the No. 6 seed. That wouldn’t be the worst news for the C’s, who have beaten Charlotte twice this season while holding them to 93 and 89 points, respectively. The Hornets are dangerous when they’re on their game, but they live and die by the 3-pointer, and the Celtics are holding opponents to 32.7 percent from three, trailing only the Golden State Warriors for the best mark in the league.
2. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are well within reach of the No. 6 seed, trailing the Atlanta Hawks by one and a half games. A matchup with Indiana doesn’t look too scary on paper, but the X-factor is Paul George, who helped take the Pacers to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014 and has the talent to change a playoff series on his own. The Celtics would be all right if they contained George, but that’s easier said than done.
3. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons currently are in the No. 8 seed, but if they jump up to No. 6, this series could be a doozy. Boston and Detroit have met three times this season, and all three games have been decided by seven points or fewer. (The C’s have won two of three.) The Pistons are playing well with new addition Tobias Harris, winning six of their last eight, and while the Celtics should win a seven-game series, this one wouldn’t be easy.
4. Atlanta Hawks
If the season ended Friday, the Celtics would face the Hawks, as the Hornets own the tiebreaker over Atlanta for the No. 5 seed. That’d be a tough draw for Boston, as the C’s are 1-2 against the Hawks this season and have lost their last two matchups. Atlanta owns the NBA’s second-best defensive rating behind the San Antonio Spurs and also forces 15.8 turnovers per game, third-best in the league. That could make for a tough playoff test against a Celtics team that thrives on winning the turnover battle and pushing the pace.
Just how far can the Celtics go? The way they’re playing now (especially at home), they should win their first-round series, regardless of opponent. But they could face the No. 2 Raptors in the second round, which is where we believe they’ll meet their demise. The Raptors are a solid team with two All-Stars in their backcourt and an underrated frontcourt that has posed problems for Boston in the Celtics’ two losses to Toronto this season.
The Cleveland Cavaliers still are the team to beat in the East, and if the Raptors somehow fall in the first round or stumble in the second, the Celtics could meet them in the Eastern Conference Finals. But given where Boston started this season, a second-round exit against Toronto would be nothing to be ashamed of.
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