As the Eastern Conference playoff picture starts to come into focus, the Boston Celtics are staring at a daunting postseason path that reaffirms that the East is anything but the kid brother to the big, bad West.
The Celtics will soon be locked into the No. 3 spot in the East. Entering Tuesday’s game against a Miami Heat team on their tail, Boston owns a 92.6 percent chance of being the third seed, based on ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projections. A win against Miami would basically ensure the Celtics will not be caught by any of the teams behind them.
A head-to-head matchup with Toronto Friday could keep in play the quest for the No. 2 seed in play, but it’s an incredibly long shot with only a 5.6 percent chance entering Tuesday’s play.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.
The question quickly becomes who will emerge as the No. 6 seed and pair with Boston in a first-round matchup. BPI projections have the Philadelphia 76ers as the strong favorite to land that spot (63.7 percent) with the Pacers (28.8 percent) and Heat (7.4 percent ) in the mix.
All of which means that Boston is staring at a possible Finals path of Philadelphia, Toronto, and Milwaukee — arguably the three other most talented teams in the conference.
Boston can feel relatively confident about their chances against the Bucks after Friday’s tilt in which the Celtics rallied out of a monster early hole and were one (or two?) overturned Giannis Antetokounmpo foul out(s) from escaping with a victory. What’s more, All-Star point guard Kemba Walker played only half his typical playoff minutes while on a minutes restriction (though the Bucks, it should be noted, were also without Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton).
The earlier rounds could be equally as daunting, however. The defending champion Raptors have opened seeding-game play by thumping the Los Angeles Lakers and holding off the Heat. Toronto could be the most disrespected defending league champ in league history the way most view their chances without Kawhi Leonard and yet the Raptors have a blend of talent, coaching, and experience that ought to make them a very undesirable playoff foe.
And then there’s Philadelphia. Maybe the most confounding team in the NBA. As talented as any of the top title contenders but lacking the consistency and chemistry of an elite squad, the 76ers forecast vacillates daily between early exit and title dark horse.
For the second time in as many games, Philadelphia nearly fumbled away another win on Monday night against the Spurs. In a meltdown against Indiana, Joel Embiid and Shake Milton got into a sideline shouting match but Milton responded Monday with a 16-point night that included hitting the go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds against San Antonio.
The helter-skelter nature of the 76ers makes it hard to gauge their true playoff potential. Will their misfit ways make them an easy first-round foe, or could they finally harness their talent and upset a top seed?
One thing is for sure, Philadelphia’s size really bothered Boston during the regular season. Walker and his teammates struggle to finish near the basket and simply getting clean perimeter looks was tough with Philadelphia’s overall length. The Sixers took the first three head-to-head matchups of the year against Boston before the Celtics emerged with a February win at TD Garden.
BPI projects Boston with a 67 percent chance to win a first-round series but remember that’s based on season results. The 76ers are far more talented than their performance to this point suggests.
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There's a whole bunch of scoreboard watching coming for Celtics fans, a lot of whom would much prefer to see a dinged-up Indiana team slide to No. 6 than see what becomes of the Sixers.
So who ultimately emerges with that No. 6 seed?
Philadelphia’s schedule gives it a chance to climb. The Sixers play the Wizards, Magic, Blazers, and Suns in their next four games — three of those teams might not be making it out of seeding play and the other could be out of the playoffs real fast. The Sixers finish up against a Toronto team that should already have the No. 2 seed locked up before playing the Rockets.
Indiana opened seeding games with consecutive wins and, despite losing Domantas Sabonis to a foot injury and treading cautiously with Victor Oladipo’s knee, the Pacers have Malcolm Brogdon back now. Like Philadelphia, the Pacers' schedule remains agreeable with Orlando and Phoenix, then a showdown with a Lakers team that has already clinched the top spot in the West.
What’s interesting is two head-to-head matchups with Miami, including in the seeding-games finale, which could have big ramifications on how the 4-5-6 spots shake out in the East.
The bottom line is that, despite being one of the top squads in the East, nothing will come easy for Boston. While Milwaukee and Toronto should have first-round layups, the Celtics could have to grind. And the challenges will only grow with each round.
The Celtics need to get healthy — and stay healthy — then harness their own potential in order to thrive given the challenges ahead.