2020 NBA Playoffs

Celtics' challenging playoff path emerging with 3-seed all but ensured

Celtics' challenging playoff path emerging with 3-seed all but ensured

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.

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the Celtics’ ceiling? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

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.

2020 NBA Playoffs: Health the most important factor for Celtics' title run

2020 NBA Playoffs: Health the most important factor for Celtics' title run

The 2019-20 Celtics do not lack talent. Boston trots out four former, current, or soon-to-be All-Stars in its starting lineup.

This Celtics squad does not lack chemistry. A year after a misfit roster contributed to Boston’s early playoff exit, this year’s team was constructed with a Kumbaya focus and players genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company, both on and off the court.

But if these Celtics get bounced early in the bubble playoffs, there will likely be one culprit, something that the team has most certainly lacked in recent seasons: Health.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Celtics news and analysis

Yup, when the internet nicknames your team the "Hospital Celtics" because of a propensity to be without top talent, it’s not a great sign. Before this season paused, Boston had its top 7 rotation players available in the same game only eight times. The team’s preferred starting 5 played just 188 minutes together in 17 games.

There were times this season when players wondered out loud if this Celtics squad would ever get to see what they were capable of at full health. The Orlando restart may finally give Boston a chance to better explore its true potential.

Or injuries could leave this team forever questioning what could have been.

The Celtics will enter Friday’s first seeding game against the Milwaukee Bucks at near full health. Yes, the team is treading cautiously with Kemba Walker and the sore left knee that has lingered since the start of the calendar year, but Boston is betting that it can be close to full strength in the postseason if it manages Walker’s workload on the ramp there.

The Celtics will still be crossing their fingers that no one else gets dinged up — or worse.

Gordon Hayward is further removed from his ankle woes at the start of his Boston tenure and Marcus Smart has rarely been able to enter a playoffs while not rushing himself back from an injury. The Celtics must hope that Smart doesn’t puncture something diving through the plexiglass near the scorer’s table because he refuses to social distance from loose balls.

Health is particularly important for this Celtics team because this group is thin on experience. While Boston can lean heavily on its core 5 — Walker, Hayward, Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — a group that could account for upwards of 75 percent of total minutes in the postseason, the team is still thin on playoff experience at the other end of the roster. Even if veterans Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, and Brad Wanamaker chip away at what’s left over for playing time, the team is still dangerously young outside its top 8.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Is Jaylen Brown going to dominate the bubble? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

In fact, Boston has seven rookies with zero playoff experience. Second-year big man Robert Williams barely had a cup off coffee in last year’s postseason. It would be asking a lot of any young player to give more than spot minutes, though a breakout from any of them would certainly alleviate depth concerns.

All of which leaves Boston one ill-timed sprained ankle away from its playoff march getting exponentially more difficult.

From the team that brought you Kyrie Irving’s knee, Gordon Hayward’s ankle, Isaiah Thomas’ hip, Kevin Garnett’s knee, and Larry Bird’s back, the injury bug is a real concern. This year’s team yearns to see what’s possible if the bug elects to chomp elsewhere.

Yes, the Celtics have the necessary talent to make a playoff trek and health woes might be the only thing that could really put a spoke in Boston's wheel.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Bucks, which begins Friday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

2020 NBA Restart: The good, the bad and the weird of the NBA's return

2020 NBA Restart: The good, the bad and the weird of the NBA's return

We're just a few days away from the NBA being back, thank goodness. From both the scrimmages and common sense, we know it won't be the same thing we've watched all our lives.

Who cares, though? We'll take what we can get. Here's the good, the bad and the weird of the return.

THE GOOD

TV appearance: We'd all love for the country to be in a position where we could go to sporting events, but while we can't, the games might as well look as cool as possible on television.

In the case of the NBA, I think they do, with two or three rows of benches under a whole bunch of monitors. It isn't distracting; it just looks sleek and futuristic without it feeling like a video game. Really, it looks like they're playing basketball on a television set, which is pretty rad.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Celtics news and analysis

It's not baseball: Another way of putting that is "the bubble is working."

The league had zero positive tests last week, giving — famous last words — little reason to worry that this thing will be halted before a champion is crowned.

Games all day: Like the NHL, the NBA is just going to start games early on weekdays and go throughout the day. We go from being deprived of the NBA to an embarrassment of riches. Glorious.

THE BAD

Intimidation goes out the window: For the viewer's purpose, they'll have to deal with whatever these leagues do sonically and visually, but for the games? Not having a crowd will be weird as hell.

You have to think it will affect runs, as its not like a "road" team will have to deal with deafening noise as it tries to break up a 7-0 run. That's one of the organic aspects of the NBA and its postseason that they just won't be able to replicate.

Less shotgunning: One of the best sports-related things to come from this whole mess of a year is dudes getting to the bubble and just sitting around shotgunning beers. Even if they keep doing it, they probably won't be posting it when they've got a game the next day.

THE WEIRD

Asterisk talk: People continue to talk about an asterisk like it means this season won't have counted. Of course it will and of course there should be an asterisk on the season.

This will probably go down as the strangest NBA season ever, so toss an asterisk there to denote that. 

Celtics Talk Podcast: Is Jaylen Brown going to dominate the bubble? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube