With just one day remaining in the regular season, the Celtics’ coaching staff has a tough task looming in the next few days as they prepare for the first round of the postseason. Normally, teams have some kind of clarity by Game 82 of which opponent they will match up against for the start of the playoffs, but this year the Celtics have had no such luck on that front.
Three potential opponents (Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami) still loom for Boston heading into Wednesday night and the odds of playing each team are quite even when using BPI projections as an evaluator.
Boston’s staff will have its hands full trying to prep for an opponent with such a quick turnaround, but with some many scenarios in play the question deserves to be asked: Whom exactly should Celtics fans be rooting to face in the first round? Is homecourt a more valuable factor in a first round series for Boston than a potential opponent? Let’s examine all three teams to try to answer that question and see who fans should be rooting for (and against) Wednesday evening.
Offensive Rating (21st) Defensive Rating (2nd)
Head-to-head vs. Boston: 3-1
Analysis: After considering blowing up the team at the trade deadline, the Hawks have been on a roll for the past couple months. They are 16-6 since Feb. 28 and have been the best defensive team in the NBA during that span, ranking in the top three in three of the defensive four factors (field goal defense, turnovers forced, free throws allowed).
While the defense has excelled, the offense has remained in the bottom third of the league. Five players are averaging in double figures and Kyle Korver is up to his old tricks from 3-point range (39.8 percent shooting), but the Hawks struggle with turning the ball over, rebounding and getting to the free throw line most nights.
You wouldn’t have guessed they have had those struggles by watching them score 118 points against the Celtics on Saturday night. Atlanta matches up extremely well with Boston, especially with their pairing of Paul Millsap and Al Horford in the frontcourt. They’ve scored 109 or more points against the Celtics in three straight wins, with a healthy mix of outside shooting and dribble penetration by point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder. That potent combination and Atlanta’s lineup continuity makes them a team Celtics should try to avoid in the first round, especially since Boston can only face Atlanta as a lower seed.
Offensive Rating (13th) Defensive Rating (8th)
Head-to-head vs. Boston: 0-2
Analysis: Don’t let the season numbers fool you: this is a different team since Joe Johnson joined them at the end of February. Despite missing star forward Chris Bosh (blood clots) for much of the second half of the season, the Heat have been the second most efficient offensive team in the league since Johnson came aboard after being bought out by the Nets
Since that signing, the team has the fifth-best record in the NBA (16-7) aided by a transition to small-ball in the starting lineup. With Luol Deng manning the stretch-four spot, the Heat have turned into an offensive force, shooting the ball at a 40 percent clip from 3-point range over the past month and a half, a seven percent jump from their regular season mark.
The Celtics have defeated the Heat twice already this season, but they haven’t faced Miami when Johnson is in uniform. On top of that, Hassan Whiteside also looms large as a major deterrent at the rim for Isaiah Thomas to contend with. He’s a monster on the glass at both ends of the floor as well. The Celtics have no one who can stack up against him in that department, outside of Jared Sullinger.
When you put all of these elements together, the Heat is a team that the Celtics would have their hands full with in the first round.
Offensive Rating (9th) Defensive Rating (9th)
Head-to-head vs. Boston: 1-2
Analysis: The Hornets were likely the preferred choice as an opponent for most Celtics fans prior to Monday’s blowout win at the TD Garden. Don’t let that stinker fool you though, Charlotte is still the best matchup for Boston out of this trio.
That’s not to say it would an easy matchup for the Celtics. Charlotte is 20-8 since the All-Star Break. They have a coach of the year candidate in Steve Clifford, eight of their ten rotation players are legitimate 3-point shooting threats, and they have the lowest turnover rate of any team in the NBA. That’s not a good thing for Boston, which relies on pressuring defense on the perimeter to help open up easy transition opportunities.
With all that said, the talent level here is a notch below Atlanta or Miami. Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin are shot creators, but Lin won’t be able to replicate the kind of performance he had Monday night four times in seven games against Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart.
Additionally, the Hornets don’t have the kind of rim protection that would give Thomas major problems at the basket. A lineup change might be in order for Brad Stevens to help match up with a stretch four in Marvin Williams, but Boston clearly has the horses to keep pace with this crew. With the benefit of homecourt advantage, Charlotte should be the preferred opponent for Boston.
Scenes from the Pierce-Garnett-Allen era Celtics