Who should the Boston Celtics want to play in the first round of the NBA Playoffs?

Brian Babineau. Getty Images.

As the Boston Celtics’ regular season comes to a close, the NBA teams that will be playing in the postseason are locked in for both the Eastern and Western Conferences. However, with two or three games left for all teams, the playoff seeding is anything but settled. As it stands, with three games remaining in their regular season, the Celtics are unlikely to finish any higher than second in the Eastern Conference, as the Miami Heat blew out the Charlotte Hornets last night. The good news is that they also can’t finish any lower than fifth, as they’re up four games on from the sixth place Chicago Bulls, and up three games from the fifth place Toronto Raptors.

Given the addition of the Play-In Tournament, and the especially close seeding race in the east this season, this still gives the Celtics a number of options as to who their first round playoff opponent could be. Prior to Rob Williams’ injury, it could have been argued that the opponent really didn’t matter for the Celtics - they were playing that well. Now, Boston still should be good enough to get through the opening round without their starting center, but they have to at least consider who their opponent is. That’s not to say jockey for seeding - teams are so tightly contested in the standings this year it’s near impossible. However, for the sake of this exercise, I’ll rank how willing the Celtics should be to play a team in the opening round from “No Way” to “Let’s Play,” with “Some Might Say” right in the middle.

5th Seed: Toronto Raptors (5.5 GB, 2-2 record against the Celtics this season)

As we begin this exercise, I’ll spoil it by stating that the Raptors are the team that I least want to play in the opening round. Aside from the fact that they are incredibly well-coached, play hard every possession, and boast five players who average 15+ points per game, there is unfortunately a COVID-19 aspect that we must discuss. As nearly all restrictions have been lifted in the United States, unvaccinated professional athletes remain prohibited from entering Canada. The Celtics have said all the right things about COVID-19 vaccines this season, but last week ESPN’s Tim Bontemps reported that the Celtics were declining to report if the team was fully vaccinated, and that the lack of a fully vaccinated team could cause issues if matched up against the Raptors.

In the last game against the Raptors, Rob Williams was out due to his meniscus, Al Horford was out multiple games due to personal reasons, Jayson Tatum was out due to right patella tendinopathy, and Jaylen Brown was listed as out with right knee soreness. Williams and Horford’s reasons have to be seen as legitimate, but what about Brown and Tatum? Jaylen Brown spoke on this shortly after the story broke, giving a promising, but also politically correct answer: Realistically, the only way that we find out if the team is completely vaccinated is if the Celtics matchup against the Raptors, but do we really want to find out? Boston should still be able to win their four games with home court advantage in the series, but that’s not necessarily a risk I want to take. 

The Toronto Raptors are a No Way. 

6th Seed: Chicago Bulls (6.5 GB, 1-1 record against the Celtics this season, final game to be played on Wed., April 6th)

The Bulls started the season as one of the best and hottest teams in the league, prompting many to give free agent acquisition DeMar DeRozan early MVP votes. While DeRozan has cooled off, he’s still having the best season of his career at age 32. However, that’s about the end of the good news for the Bulls. They have been absolutely torched by injuries this season, with Patrick Williams, Alex Caruso, and Lonzo Ball all missing significant periods of time. In fact, it was announced only yesterday that starting point guard Lonzo Ball would be missing the remainder of the season after recovering from meniscus surgery (which should also make you feel slightly uneasy about Rob Williams and his recovery). If the Bulls were to overcome their starting point guard being out for the remainder of the playoffs, their record since January 1st is an unimpressive 22-24, with an even worse record against teams above .500. The Bulls seem like a fun team that peaked too early in the season, and suffered more injuries than they can overcome.

The Chicago Bulls are a Let’s Play.

7th Seed: Cleveland Cavaliers (9.0 GB, 2-1 record against the Celtics this season)

The Cavs are another team who was a surprise to start the season, and the team is slated to post their first winning season without LeBron James since 1998, a huge accomplishment. They had two All-Star appearances this season, as point guard Darius Garland and center Jarrett Allen both were selected to play for the home crowd. However, this again seems to be where luck has run out.

Cleveland has also been racked by injuries, losing Collin Sexton early in the season, followed by Ricky Rubio, and Rajon Rondo, so their guard play aside from Garland has been inconsistent. Furthermore, they are currently without Jarrett Allen (finger) and Rookie of the Year contender Evan Mobley (ankle), and it’s uncertain when they’ll return, although it is expected to be sometime before or during the first round of the playoffs.

Overall, Cleveland is a young team that should use this experience in the Play-In Tournament/Playoffs as valuable experience to learn and grow together. Aside from Kevin Love, no one on the team has substantial playoff experience in a central role, but Cleveland should be confident that this team is back and their future is bright.

The Celtics shouldn’t be scared of the Cavs; they’re a Let’s Play.

8th Seed: Brooklyn Nets (10.5 GB, 3-1 record against the Celtics this season)

Okay now here’s the big one. By no means should anyone be excited about playing the Nets. They still employ Kevin Durant, and now Kyrie Irving is eligible to play in home games in the state of New York. Sure, there’s plenty of question marks with their roster, but KD and Kyrie are unquestionably Top 20 players in the league, and arguably Top 10. The Celtics have a great regular season record against the Nets, but they’ll have to play without Rob Williams, and the playoffs are a different beast. Maybe if Williams was around for this round, the Nets should definitively be a Let’s Play, but that can’t be the case anymore. So why am I still not opposed to playing the Nets?

Well for one, it’d make for great television. Sure, Celtics fans should be over Kyrie Irving leaving Boston by now, but we don’t have to like him. Plus, even with Kyrie being eligible to play in home games, it’s not like he’s necessarily been playing every other day for the past six months. I’m sure his conditioning will suffer to an extent as a result. Furthermore, it was reported yesterday by Adrian Wojnarowski that Ben Simmons will not be ready to play for the rest of the regular season or Play-In Tournament, casting further doubt on his availability at all this season. 

"The idea that Ben Simmons could be ready in nine days when the play-in starts is not realistic," Wojnarowski said. "Brooklyn's going to have to get into the playoffs before there can be any real conversation about Simmons ramping up to return."

The Nets have been terrible defensively all season, and Simmons was supposed to help with this. They have experienced some great play from other mid-season additions in Seth Curry and Andre Drummond (who could particularly be a problem without Rob Williams), but the Nets don’t scare me this season.

Too many question marks. The Brooklyn Nets are a Some Might Say No Way, Some Might Say Let’s Play.

9th Seed: Atlanta Hawks (10.5 GB, 2-2 record against the Celtics this season)

Honestly, the Hawks don’t scare me at all. Trae Young is having a historic season that isn’t being discussed enough, but aside from Ice Trae, the Hawks are a team who overachieved last season, got too cocky, and failed to build on that hype. John Collins has both a finger and foot injury, and his timeline to return this season is questionable at best.

Factually, the Hawks are a high-scoring team, with below average defense. The Celtics have the better starting lineup, and are well designed to shut the Hawks down on offense, with *future* DPOY Marcus Smart locking up Young. Crazier things have happened, but the Celtics have more talent and have consistently been playing better than this Hawks team.

The Celtics want the smoke, Let’s Play.

Brock Williams-Smith. Getty Images.

10th Seed: Charlotte Hornets (11.5 GB, 3-1 record against the Celtics this season)

Finally, we’re at the Hornets, who boast a number of former Celtics players, including Isaiah Thomas, Terry Rozier, and Gordon Hayward. Aside from the former Celtics on their roster, this is one of my favorite teams in the league to watch, as I’m also a huge fan of LaMelo Ball, Kelly Oubre, and Montrezl Harrell. The Hornets should prove to be an exciting watch for years to come, as they've finally discovered some semblance of team building after years of missed draft picks and bad free agency decisions. But they shouldn’t intimidate the Celtics.

The Celtics have the two best players in the series in Tatum and Brown, and the Hornets don’t really have any wing defenders who can effectively shut either of them down, let alone both at once. Gordon Hayward has been injured for significant parts of the season again, and just recently returned. Overall, the Hornets should only be considered a League Pass team at this point, not a playoff threat.

Consensus: Let’s Play the Hornets.

Obviously, so much can change in the final days of the NBA regular season, and who knows what will happen. Do you agree with my picks? Who do you want to see the Celtics play in the opening round of the playoffs?