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How high can Celtics climb?

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff  February 11, 2013 03:50 PM

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Overreactions run rampant in sports. As I write this, the Celtics are better without Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce should have been an All-Star, no question about it. Given Pierce's play during Boston's seven-game win streak, all with Rondo on the sideline, it would be hard to argue against either point.

Debates about the post-Rondo Celtics and the Pierce's efficacy are the kind that pop up often in today's 24-hour news cycle. There's a compulsion to weigh in on the issues with a kind of authority and permanence. I'm guilty of it myself. It's less fun, practical, whatever, to admit that these debates badly miss the point.

The truth is it doesn't much matter that Pierce missed the All-Star team this year. He is an All-Star, solidified by 10 plus-years of All-Star level play. In that same vein, it doesn't much matter that the Celtics are playing better right now without Rondo. If you were playing Game 1 of a seven-game playoff series with the New York Knicks or Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls tonight, you'd want Rondo on your team. The Celtics' 11-4 record in playoff series in five seasons with Rondo, and these numbers I brought up last week to show that the Celtics have been consistently better with Rondo on the court, hammer that point home.

This season has been particularly crazy for coach Doc Rivers and his team. The Celtics have strung together a six-game winning streak (with Rondo), six-game losing streak (with Rondo), and seven-game winning streak (without Rondo) since Jan. 4. That inconsistency makes it difficult to forecast with any certainty how the team will play next week or next month, never mind in May. Still, I'm very interested in how things shake out long-term. The Celtics have climbed into 7th place in the Eastern Conference with their recent streak, and they're now a game closer to 3d-place Indiana than they are from 9th-place Philadelphia.

With the long-term in mind, here's how I rank the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference in terms of the challenge they pose to the Celtics. Please note that these evaluations are opinions and are likely to change as soon as the Celtics lose one game, which is probably tonight.

1. Miami Heat (actual standings: 1st)
Offensive rating (points per 100 possessions): 2d
Defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions): 13th
Could the Celtics beat them in a playoff series?: No
Summary: The Heat are the best team in the conference until someone knocks them off. The Celtics came very close to that last year, but they've since fallen back in the pack and there isn't a formidable challenger in sight. The second-place Knicks are trying to be that team.

2. Chicago Bulls (actual standings: 4th)
Offensive rating: 20th
Defensive rating: 4th
Could the Celtics beat them in a playoff series?: No
Summary: The Bulls are one of two teams I don't give the Celtics a chance of beating in the playoffs, providing Derrick Rose is reasonably healthy. They're an awful matchup for the Celtics. Joakim Noah gives Kevin Garnett fits, and Luol Deng does a great job on Paul Pierce. Coach Tom Thibodeau knows all of Boston's sets. This matchup has nightmare written all over it, and you have to think Chicago is going to get better on offense when it gets the former MVP back on the floor.

knicksplayoffpre.jpg3. New York Knicks (actual standings: 2d)
Offensive rating: 3d
Defensive rating: 15th
Could the Celtics beat them in a playoff series?: Possibly
Summary: This is the playoff series Celtics fans should dream of if only because it would be so much fun. The Knicks have more talent, but the Knicks as currently constituted haven't gone anywhere. Getting Iman Shumpert back should help them get tougher.

4. Indiana Pacers (actual standings: 3d)
Offensive rating: 24th
Defensive rating: 1st
Could the Celtics beat them in a playoff series?: Possibly
Summary: The Pacers are really good, and no one talks about them. Paul George is really good, and no one talks about him. Danny Granger is set to return this week. Indiana has put it all together, and they play great defense. This team will be scary for years to come. Where the Celtics have the edge is obviously experience, and a playoff series between these two teams would be a dogfight.

5. Boston Celtics (actual standings: 7th)
Offensive rating: 26th
Defensive rating: 7th
Summary: The Celtics may or may not climb up to 5th place in the standings, but I've got them as the fifth-best team in the conference, with a chance to beat all but Chicago and Miami in a playoff series. I'm not convinced the scoring can keep up at this pace, though the defense since Avery Bradley's return has been dominant. With a healthy Rondo and Jared Sullinger, I'd have them behind only Miami.

6. Atlanta Hawks (actual standings: 6th)
Offensive rating: 18th
Defensive rating: 10th
Could the Celtics beat them in a playoff series?: Yes
Summary: We've seen this movie before. Joe Johnson is gone, but the Celtics have had Atlanta's number for years. Al Horford is a tough matchup, and a playoff series would be explosive, but the Celtics could beat the Hawks in a hard-fought series.

7. Brooklyn Nets (actual standings: 5th)
Offensive rating: 9th
Defensive rating: 17th
Could the Celtics beat them in a playoff series?: Yes
Summary: Brook Lopez has been criminally underrated this season, but the superteam that has been assembled for the Nets' inaugural season has not lived up to expectations. Kris Humphries has not worked out, nor has Gerald Wallace, who is averaging half as many points as he did last season on 43-percent shooting. There's enough talent here, but the Celtics are a better team.

8. Milwaukee Bucks
(actual standings: 8th)
Offensive rating: 23d
Defensive rating: 9th
Summary: If the standings hold, the Bucks will face the Heat in the first round in what would be the most lopsided series on either side of the playoffs. The backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings is exciting but limited. Ersan Ilyasova has not repeated his spectacular production from last season.

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