The middle of the Eastern Conference standings is a full blown traffic jam with four teams vying for the 3-6 seeds come playoff time. Currently the Hawks (42-30), Celtics (42-30), Heat (41-30), and Hornets (41-30) are all in a race for home-court advantage in the playoffs. For the Celtics, they will in all likelihood have to face one of the Triple-H teams in the first round of the playoffs and all three teams pose different problems and challenges to the Celts. As of right now, the most likely matchup for the Celtics in the first round is the Atlanta Hawks, with the Heat and Hornets slightly behind. Via Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com:

Given the four-team log jam in the middle of the East, BPI projects an 80.7 percent chance that Boston's first-round opponent will be the Hawks, Heat or Hornets. Unless the wheels come off completely for one of the four teams, they will comprise the 3-6 and 4-5 matchups in the East.

The Celtics have fared well against the Hornets (2-0) and Heat (2-0) to this point, but they have struggled with the Hawks (1-2). BPI, judging both regular-season performance and playoff experience, leans heavily in favor of Boston against both Charlotte and Miami.

Boston is projected as favorites in a series against Charlotte or Miami but are considered the underdog in a matchup with Atlanta:

Regardless of the top seed, Boston is projected to beat both the Hornets and Heat. The Celtics' have a 58 percent chance against Miami as the lower seed and spike to 66 percent with home-court advantage. Boston is an even more lopsided favorite against Charlotte, with a 60 percent chance to win as a lower seed and a 69 percent win rate with home court.

Then there are the Hawks, who, entering Wednesday's game, were projected as Boston's most likely first-round opponent, with a 29.1 percent chance of a first-round meeting. Aided by both a slight edge in season BPI rank and a heavy advantage in playoff experience, the Hawks are a 59 percent favorite as the higher seed, and Boston's win percentage with home court is barely more than a coin flip, at 51 percent.

In terms of making a case of which team would be a better matchup for the Celts, we obviously have to point to either the Hornets or the Heat as the preferable opponents. The Cs have had great success against both Miami and Charlotte this year, beating them 4-0. Breaking it down, here's how Boston matches up with all three teams:


Image Credit: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

While Miami still has Dwyane Wade, he's not the same player he used to be. The health of Chris Bosh is also still in question with blood clots possibly keeping him out for the rest of this season too. The Heat are also one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA at the bottom of the league in PPG and three point shooting. The Celts are one of the better perimeter defending teams around and would cause even more problems for the Heat in terms of scoring. The addition of Joe Johnson does help them out in terms of getting a veteran scorer who can make big shots but it isn't enough to sway the advantage towards Miami's side. Lastly, we wouldn't really have to worry about Miami's "crowd" being an advantage due to their tendencies to arrive late to games and to also leave early.


Image Credit: Nell Redmond/AP

Charlotte is an interesting team to look at because they aren't great at one thing but good in almost all facets of the game. They are a very good defensive team and also one of the better three point shooting teams in the NBA. They also are a pretty deep team with a lot of young guys like Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lin, and Kemba Walker in their rotation. However, what they do lack is star power and enough scoring to get far in the playoffs. Al Jefferson doesn't look like the same player he was two years ago, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is out for the year, and the Hornets also lack a go-to-scorer to take over a game. Nicholas Batum and Kemba Walker are nice players but neither one will put a team on their back for a seven game series. Also, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, Marvin Williams, and Spencer Hawes are not exactly the most imposing front court around. With guys like Amir Johnson, Sullinger, Tyler Zeller, Jerebko, and Olynyk, Boston has more than enough firepower to take down Charlotte. The Celtics should be able to beat Charlotte with their depth, scoring, and defense pretty easily in a playoff series.


Image Credit: Scott Cunningham/NBAE Via Getty Images

Lastly, we come to Atlanta who poses the toughest challenge out of the three teams for Boston. Not only do the Hawks have a lot of playoff experience but they also play very well on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they can go inside with Paul Millsap and Al Hereford, who not only can play well in the post but also possess the ability to shoot the mid-range jumper. Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder are also a very good PG duo that can shoot the outside ball and drive to the basket effectively to keep a defense in check. And of course you can't forget about Korver on the outside with his ability to shoot the ball. One noticeable difference from last year's Hawks is that they no longer have DeMarre Carroll, who gave them a lockdown defender on the wing who could shoot the three. Kent Bazemore is a nice player but he hasn't had the impact that Carroll had which is why they've slipped a little bit defensively on the perimeter. Also, it's important to keep in mind that Atlanta is one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA, while Boston is in the Top 10. With an edge on the boards, the Celtics could control the pace better with more possessions on offense and limiting Atlanta's second chance points. Home-court advantage would be play a big factor in this series as the Green Team would have a much better shot at taking the Hawks down with a potential Game 7 at home. However, should this series take place, it would be a grind out affair with the outcome being decided in 6 or 7 games.


Another perspective to keep in mind would be our potential second round matchup against the Raptors or Cavaliers. As a 3rd or 6th seed, Boston would face Toronto in the second round assuming both teams win their first round matches and Toronto stays the number two seed. As a 4th or 5th seed, Boston would potentially face LeBron and the Cavs in the second round. The narrative usually is, "avoid LeBron for as long as you can", and for the Celts it should be extra motivation to fight for the 3rd spot in the standings.

With an important trip out to the West Coast and only 10 games remaining, this a crucial part of the season for the Celtics. At this point, they control a lot of their own fate in terms of where they end up in the Conference. Putting yourself in the best position to win in the playoffs is the biggest concern at this point and for the Celts, it's now or ever.

Image Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Follow Kevin Yazhari on Twitter @KevKevYazhari

Kevin Yazhari 3/24/2016 01:18:00 PM Edit
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