The 2017-18 Boston Celtics have lofty aspirations. But considering the current state of their roster, let’s not put the cart before the horse.
With 20 days left in the Celtics’ regular season, they look like a lock for the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed. In fact, they have a 98.9 percent chance of finishing second in the East, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, entering Friday 4 1/2 games behind the No. 1 Toronto Raptors and six games ahead of the No. 3 Cleveland Cavaliers with 11 contests remaining.
What’s much more uncertain, though, is who Boston will face in the postseason’s first round. If the season ended today, it’d be the No. 7 seed Heat, but five East teams are within 3 1/2 games of Miami.
Here’s a ranking of the Celtics’ most likely first-round playoff opponents, courtesy of ESPN’s Chris Forsberg:
1. Heat (41.4 percent chance of playing Boston)
2. Indiana Pacers (33 percent)
3. Washington Wizards (11.8 percent)
4. Milwaukee Bucks (10.7 percent)
5. Philadelphia 76ers (1.8 percent)
6. Cavaliers (1.2 percent)
Put another way, there’s basically a three-in-four chance Boston will play Miami or Indiana, while the Wizards and Bucks are hovering on the fringe.
Do those matchups favor the Celtics? To state the obvious, the C’s will be heavily favored against whoever they play, and a first-round exit would be a massive disappointment. Even without Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis, Boston should take care of business — especially if Kyrie Irving returns to the fold.
But if Irving can’t go, the first round will be far less of a layup. With that in mind, here’s our ranking of those clubs from the Celtics’ most favorable matchup (1) to their least favorable (6).
1. Bucks. The Bucks still are too inconsistent to be considered a serious playoff threat. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a stud and could will Milwaukee to a victory or two, but over a seven-game series, the cream should rise to the top.
2. Heat. Good news for Boston: Its most likely first-round opponent is one of its better matchups. Yes, Miami has won the teams’ last two meetings, and there’s always the possibility of another Kelly Olynyk revenge game. Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters are inconsistent scorers, though, and Dwyane Wade is sidelined with a hamstring injury (aka old age). The Celtics should win this series in five or six games.
3. Wizards. There’s plenty of bad blood here, and each of the last two meetings between these bitter rivals has gone to overtime. The C’s have the obvious edge if Irving is healthy, but the Wiz would put up a stiff fight, possibly wearing Boston out ahead of a second-round matchup.
4. Pacers. Victor Oladipo has been a certified Celtics killer this season (100 points in three games against Boston), and with Smart on the shelf, he’d have free reign to wreak havoc. Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young also have presented problems in the frontcourt for the C’s, so this would be a tough first-round draw.
5. Sixers. Sure, Philly is inexperienced, but Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are nightmares on both ends of the floor who are capable of stifling Boston’s offense, as they did in an 89-80 win back in January.
6. Cavaliers. Seeing LeBron James and Co. in the first round would be a disaster scenario for Boston. Fortunately for the C’s, it’s a very long shot.