The three-seed is locked up but Boston’s first-round matchup is yet to be determined.

Up until the point I’m writing this, the Celtics are 4-2 in the bubble. Out of those six games they’ve played, I would say I’m happy with their play in approximately two and a half of them. They were solid against the Nets, good for most (around half) of the Blazers game, and amazing in the game versus Toronto.

As a result of this performance, they have secured the three seed in the Eastern Conference. The one and two seeds are locked up, and the same goes for the seven and eight seeds. That being said, seeds four through six remain up for grabs. Philadelphia, Indiana, and Miami are all within one game of each other. 

Related: The key to the Celtics’ success runs through… Daniel Theis?

The Heat and Pacers play each other twice more during the seeding games, and the Sixers are having a multitude of injury problems. All of this begs the question – who are the Celtics going to play in the first round of the playoffs? While I may not be able to predict the future and tell you who Boston is going to play, I can give my thoughts on who I think the C’s would match up with the best.

The Heat are 2-3 in the bubble at the time I’m writing this, and the Celtics have actually played them in the bubble already. Miami was without their All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, and yet still came out on top. While some may think it’s an issue that the Celtics played so poorly in that game, I do think that they would be able to handle Miami in a seven game series. 

Guys like Duncan Robinson and Kelly Olynyk are lethal shooters, but Boston has great perimeter defenders and should be able to defend the perimeter better than in their most recent showing against the Heat. I think that in the Celtics’ minds they should have been able to breeze through that game because of Butler’s absence. This led to a false sense of security and a lackluster effort on both ends of the floor. The result was Miami raining down threes and not enough ball movement on offense.

The Celtics won both of their games against the Heat during the regular season, so they have the ability to beat them at full strength. However, I do think this is the matchup I would least like to see in the first round. The Heat have a star in Butler, solid defense, and some of the best shooting in the NBA. Despite this thought, I do think that the Celtics would win a seven game series versus Miami. It’s just not the easiest matchup out of the bunch.

Then there’s Indiana, who has been without their All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis in the bubble. Victor Oladipo almost decided to sit out as well, but eventually chose to play. They’ve been playing some solid basketball, sitting at 4-1 in the bubble. While all this may be true, I can’t write about the Pacers without talking about their apparent new superstar TJ Warren.

Warren’s been on absolute fire in the bubble, averaging around 35 points a night. Not only that, but he’s doing so while shooting roughly 60% from the field and 55% from three. The last time we saw a player jump from the “role player/scorer” role to pretty much a star player was Isaiah Thomas when he moved to Boston. Whether or not Warren can keep this performance up into next year and beyond is another discussion, but at this point it’s safe to assume Warren will play at this level for the remainder of the bubble games.

Boston has gone 1-1 against the Pacers this season and will not play them during the seeding games. I do think the Celtics match up very well against Indiana, though. Both teams are built on wings and a core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward should outperform Warren, Victor Oladipo, and Jeremy Lamb. There’s obviously more to it than that, but at the base of it all I think Boston could handle Indiana in a seven game series. That being said, they’re still not the ideal first round matchup in my eyes.

Miami and Indiana are playing as I’m writing this article, so that outcome will definitely shed more light on the shape of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Last, and maybe least, there’s the Philadelphia 76ers who are currently 3-2 in the bubble as I’m writing this. Both of their All-Star players have gone down with injuries since being in Orlando. Joel Embiid injured his ankle, but should be back relatively soon. On the other hand, their star point guard/power forward Ben Simmons just got surgery on his knee and is projected to miss the remainder of the season.

While I would never wish injuries on any player, this is very significant when thinking about potential matchups for the Celtics. Simmons is a phenomenal player and without him the Sixers lose a lot of talent. It may open up the floor more and allow Embiid to thrive in the post without fear of clogging the lane, but missing a talent like Simmons is never a good thing.

Philadelphia may have gotten the best of the Celtics in their regular season, winning three of the four games, but I don’t think that means much come playoff time. The Celtics have a four headed monster of scoring, and I don’t think the Sixers will be able to keep up, especially without Simmons who is by far their best perimeter defender. I suppose the same could be said for Embiid as the Celtics’ starting center, Daniel Theis, is only 6’ 8”, but Boston has done an okay job of slowing him down by committee.

Personally, I think the Sixers would be the best first round matchup for the Celtics. Aside from the fact that I think Boston can handle the Sixers in a seven game series, there’s another angle on the upside of this matchup. 

I was talking about it on my most recent podcast and an interesting point was brought up. My guest, @EvGuyBoston, mentioned that if the Celtics can take down Philadelphia in the first round, they would carry so much momentum into round two. Meanwhile, the Raptors, a likely second round matchup, would be beating down on a Nets team full of benchwarmers. The Celtics would be riding a huge wave of confidence while the Raptors would be resting off of what would most likely be a four game sweep. That boost of confidence could be just what Boston needs to make a deep playoff run.

So while the Pacers may be slightly less talented than the Sixers (with no Simmons), I think I would much rather have the Celtics face Philadelphia in round one. I think the Celtics have the talent to take down all three of the teams they could face, but a matchup against the Sixers has the most upside. Without Simmons, the Celtics’ barrage of wings and scoring options can run rampage on the Sixers. That’s the matchup I want for Boston in the first round. Bring on Philly.

 


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