One of the more common takeways from news that the NBA will bring 22 teams to Orlando and restart the 2019-20 season with an eight-game ramp to conference playoffs is that a standings shift might help the Celtics avoid a first-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The question then becomes: Who exactly should the Celtics hope to play in Round 1 and what’s the ideal road map to playoff success?
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For all their regular-season woes, the Sixers are a daunting foe for any East team.
Philadelphia's size bothered the Celtics during regular-season matchups and the Sixers took the first three of four head-to-head battles. Boston can pluck positives from an early February triumph in which it better handled Joel Embiid’s size. Alas, Boston’s biggest advantage in a potential first-round matchup would be home-court advantage and that’s essentially erased by a neutral-site venue.
The Sixers, for all their warts, undeniably have the most potential of any team currently outside the East’s top 3. All of which leaves a lot of Celtics fans eager for Philadelphia to surge in the standings. The Sixers will enter a restart tied with Indiana and two games back of the Heat.
Boston enters the restart three games behind the Raptors for the No. 2 seed and 2.5 games up on Miami. Barring a pronounced hot (or cold) streak, the Celtics seem unlikely to shift off that spot. All of which leaves all eyes on the No. 6 seed that Boston would draw to open the postseason.
Would Indiana be a better opponent? It’s difficult to make any firm declarations because it’s impossible to know exactly how teams will respond to what will essentially be a four-plus month break before games resume. That pause did afford the Pacers a chance to get Malcolm Brogdon healthy after he missed the final games of the suspended season with a hip injury. Victor Oladipo, who returned from a year-long absence in late January, should seemingly be closer to his old All-Star form after the downtime.
The Heat were stumbling a bit before the break, going 7-9 while adding Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, and Solomon Hill at the February trade deadline. A ramp up to a restart might give the Heat some time to better integrate their new pieces and rebuild a confidence that eroded before the shutdown.
The Celtics were 2-0 against Miami this season. Boston was 1-1 against Indiana — winning on the road there in their final game before the break.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index was bullish on Boston’s chances against both Indiana and Miami in a typical first-round matchup, giving Boston a 77 percent chance of taking the series as the higher seed against Indiana, and a 73 percent chance in the same scenario against Miami. Boston’s projected odds were even a robust 71 percent to win the series against Philadelphia — though part of that was based on Philadelphia’s road woes.
What’s harder to simulate is how the shift to a neutral site might change those odds. The Heat (14-19) and Sixers (10-24) were poor road teams. How any of these three potential teams might play in a neutral site, fan-less facility is guesswork at best. Celtics fans have leaned on the notion that Brad Stevens, with his typically unflappable demeanor, can keep his team laser focused.
The truth is we have no idea how any of these players will respond to a new game environment.
Ultimately, the goal in a playoff series is to have the best player on the court on your side. It’s rather undeniable that, if motivated and in shape, the 76ers have that player in Embiid. Boston might be able to make a claim to Tatum being the player in matchups against Indiana or Miami if he can pick up where he left off before the season paused. Kemba Walker should have ample motivation given his lack of playoff opportunities, too.
With so many variables, it’s impossible to say if there’s an ideal matchup for Boston. If the 76ers continue to struggle upon a restart, maybe the idea of that pairing won’t seem as daunting. Maybe Indiana or Miami plays so well early in a restart that those matchups become less desirable.
If the Celtics advance beyond Round 1, they might actually benefit from the neutral-site location. A potential 2-3 matchup with Toronto gets a lot less daunting knowing the Celtics don’t have to play north of the border, a house of horrors for them during the Brad Stevens era. The Bucks won’t have the luxury of homecourt in any potential conference finals matchup, a tough hit after going a sizzling 28-3 in Milwaukee this year.
Boston’s lack of homecourt might hurt the team out of the playoff gates but the Celtics, if healthy, should be the more talented team against the likes of Miami and Indiana. Avoiding the Sixers does seem ideal, especially since a rebooted Sixers squad might have the best chance to push the Bucks in a potential semifinal matchup, if the two teams were to meet. That all assumes the 76ers can shake the malaise they lingered in for much of the season.
Ultimately, the Celtics are going to have to beat good teams to stick around in the postseason. Health, playing to their potential, and focus should matter a lot more to Boston’s playoff success than whoever earns the East’s sixth seed.