Are the Celtics the Eastern Conference favorites?

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The Boston Celtics won again last night, beating the Brooklyn Nets 114-107 to go up 2-0 in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. The game was messy, yet thrilling, as each team committed 14 turnovers and the two teams combined for a whopping 55 total fouls. Yet in the fourth quarter, the Celtics pulled it together (which would shock fans to read in the early regular season) to outscore the Nets 29-17 and secure a huge win.

The Celtics play the next two games on the road in Brooklyn, and while fans should know by now not to count out Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving, with the way the Celtics are playing, it's highly plausible the Celtics can steal at least one game in Brooklyn. I don't want to get ahead of myself and declare that the Celtics will sweep, as I think that's unlikely of any Kevin Durant led team, but Boston fans have to feel confident. That being said, how does Boston stack up against the rest of NBA teams in the Eastern Conference? 

Miami Heat (1-seed) vs Atlanta Hawks (8-seed) (Heat lead 2-0)

Jimmy Butler dropped 45 total points, including seven straight to put Miami up 10 with 1:20 remaining in Game 2, to secure a 115-105 victory and put the Heat up 2-0 in the series. Trae Young has struggled in both games so far, finishing with eight points on 1-for-12 shooting in Game 1, and he had 10 turnovers and shot 2-for-10 from three in Game 2. Young's production is essential for the Hawks if they hope to have any chance of defeating the top-seeded Heat, but without starting center Clint Capela (and it appears unlikely he will return in this series from a hyperextended knee) the Hawks' hopes are shot. Let's say that the Heat do defeat the Hawks, how do they match up against the Celtics? The Celtics wouldn't play the Heat until the Eastern Conference Finals due to the bracket seeding, but even if that is the case, you have to feel confident if you're the Celtics. In what would be an Bubble Conference Finals Rematch from 2020, the Celtics are a much better team than they were in 2020. You can make the argument that the Celtics have two of the top three players in the series, and definitively have the best player in Jayson Tatum, and when this is the case the odds are always good for your team (this rule doesn't apply to the Nets-Celtics series and Kevin Durant *knock on wood*). 

The Celtics went 2-1 against the Heat this season, with their only loss being on March 30th, the game that essentially solidified the Heat's positioning as the 1-seed. Overall, the Celtics appear to have more juice than the Heat, and while it's not sure thing and I am bias, I wouldn't be afraid of Miami. 

Milwaukee Bucks (3-seed) vs Chicago Bulls (6-seed) (Series tied 1-1)

The Bucks lost home court advantage last night to the Bulls as DeMar DeRozan dropped a playoff career high 41 points in a 114-110 victory for the Bulls. To make matters worse, Bucks All-Star and notorious Celtics killer Khris Middleton sprained his MCL, an injury which projects him to be out for 3-4 weeks - potentially the rest of the NBA Playoffs. Injuries are terrible, especially when teams work so hard all year to make the playoffs, but the defending NBA Champions are in some trouble. They still have the greatest player in the world in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but this series won't be the walk in the park for the Bucks as many predicted it would. Even if the Bucks are able to advance to the next round, the injury to Middleton is a huge loss. It'd be unlikely that he returns in the next round, and the Celtics could focus all their defensive prowess at shutting down Giannis as a team. Middleton's injury changes the Bucks entire offense, as they don't have another consistent scoring threat to support Giannis. Jrue Holiday is a defensive beast, and Brook Lopez can stretch the floor, but Holiday is incredibly inconsistent on offense, and Lopez has barely played this season.

At full strength, I'd be scared to play the Bucks, but now they aren't as intimidating. 

Philadelphia 76ers (4-seed) vs Toronto Raptors (5-seed) (76ers lead 3-0)

The 76ers had their own mini COVID controversy leading up to the playoffs, as it was revealed that Matisse Thybulle was not vaccinated and would thereby be barred from playing in Toronto. With Thybulle being Philly's best wing defender, how would the 76ers shut down the Raptors on the road? Apparently it doesn't matter.

An injury to star rookie Scottie Barnes and a non-COVID illness for Gary Trent Jr. have killed the Raptors rotation, and Joel Embiid's game-winning three pointer in overtime of Game 3 put the 76ers up 3-0 and in position to cruise to the second round of the playoffs. There are few people outside of the Philly faithful who would have predicted this level of dominance from the 76ers, and I expect them to stroll into the second round. But the Raptors lack overall star power, which again is key in the playoffs, and I refuse to be scared of the 76ers come April and May given their ability to self-implode. James Harden still looks slow, and I expect Marcus Smart to lock him down in an individual matchup. Joel Embiid is inarguably a problem on offense, and it's absolutely necessary that the Celtics have their full big-man rotation (including Rob Williams) in any matchup with Philadelphia. The only real concern I have with the 76ers is if our bigs get into foul trouble, as Joel Embiid made 9.6 free throws per game this season on 11.7 attempts, according to StatMuse.

If the Celtics do matchup against the 76ers in a round to come, it'll be a fun series, but I'm not scared. Do I sound bias in my analysis? Probably. Am I? Probably. But does that mean Celtics fans shouldn't feel confident about our chances to make the NBA Finals given what we've seen thus far? No, we have every reason to feel confident.

There's still plenty of basketball to be played, but this Celtics team is far too fun and far too good to not at least get a little excited in anticipation of what might be to come. For now, let's enjoy the ride. Go Celtics.