While nothing has been officially decided in the Eastern Conference in terms of playoff seedings, we have a pretty good idea of who is going to be occupying the No. 3 through 6 seeds. It is almost certainly going to be some combination of the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets, as one loss separates all four of those teams.
With the Celtics missing Jae Crowder since Mar. 15, Boston has fallen out of the third spot and has dropped to fifth with the Hornets hot on their tails.
Crowder’s ankle has been progressing nicely, but there is a chance that the C’s could fall all the way to sixth by time he returns, and there is also a very strong possibility that they have blown their chances of earning the No. 3 seed entirely.
Regardless, they are probably going to be playing one of the other three ballclubs they are jockeying with, and there is an outside shot that the Indiana Pacers get hot and slide up from seventh.
So, now that we know who the Celtics’ probable opponents are, let’s rank them by difficulty (easiest to hardest).
4. Charlotte Hornets
Look; I know the Hornets have been impressive in the second half.
Since falling to 22-25 on Jan. 29, Charlotte has gone 17-5 to surge into the hunt for the third spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Kemba Walker has been brilliant, Nicolas Batum has been an all-around stud, and Al Jefferson is finally healthy.
Still, the Celtics are simply a bad matchup for the Hornets.
Boston and Charlotte have already played twice this season, and the C’s have given the Hornets the business both times, and on Charlotte’s home floor (where the Hornets are 26-11), no less.
The Celtics have terrific perimeter defenders to match up with Walker and Batum, essentially neutralizing the Hornets’ offensive attack and forcing them to explore other avenues to score the basketball.
Boston has proven it can beat this Charlotte squad on the road, and that could prove pivotal in a playoff series, especially if the C’s don’t have home-court advantage.
If the Celtics do end up drawing the Hornets, I expect Brad Stevens’ group to advance.
3. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are currently three losses behind the Hornets for the No. 6 seed, so the chances of the Celtics matching up with Paul George and the boys in the first round is unlikely.
That’s probably a good thing, too.
Indiana has thoroughly thrashed Boston this season, winning three out of four meetings. Albeit, the most recent one came with Crowder sidelined, but Crowder was on the floor the first two times the Pacers topped the C’s.
Because of George’s ability to take over games, the Celtics struggle when they go blow-for-blow with Indiana. Now, over a seven-game series, the Pacers would almost surely have to get consistent production from guys other than George, but the fact that he can go off at a moment’s notice is scary, and it’s the exact type of quality the Celtics do not have on their roster.
Boston might have some trouble if it ended up playing Indy.
2. Atlanta Hawks
Quietly, the Hawks have been playing their best basketball of the season, rattling off eight wins in their last nine games and topping some fairly tough opponents in the process.
The Celtics have met Atlanta three times so far, with the Hawks emerging as victor in the last two of those meetings.
The reason Boston has so much trouble against Atlanta is unquestionably because of the frontcourt.
With Al Horford and Paul Millsap, the Hawks own one of the best big tandems in the business, and the interior is the area where the C’s struggle the most.
It is especially tough for the Celtics to guard Millsap, as he is the type of 4 who can shoot from the perimeter or put the ball on the floor. Unfortunately, Boston’s bigs simply aren’t athletic enough to stay with him, so that could pose significant issues in a playoff series.
The C’s should be able to contain Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder, but that frontline is tough.
1. Miami Heat
Now, this one comes with a caveat, and it’s Chris Bosh.
This ranking is based on the assumption that Bosh will be healthy and ready to go by the time the postseason rolls around. If not, then the Hawks would take the top spot, but all indications are that Bosh will be back for the playoffs, so here are the Heat.
Miami has looked like a different team since bringing Joe Johnson aboard, and with Bosh on the mend, the Heat could be an incredibly dangerous team come mid-April.
And not just to the Celtics, but to the entire Eastern Conference, in general.
Just ask LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who recently got hammered 122-101 by Miami. And that was without Bosh.
Yes, the Celtics have beaten the Heat twice this season, but the playoffs are a different animal.
A frontcourt of Hassan Whiteside and Bosh could give Boston tremendous issues in a seven-game series, and Dwyane Wade is still perfectly capable of going off for a game or two.
Assuming Miami is healthy, it is undoubtedly the scariest potential first-round matchup for the C’s.