Celtics

Sizing up the Celtics’ potential play-in tournament opponents

The Celtics would face the Charlotte Hornets if the season ended today, but there's still room for movement in the East's play-in bracket.

Jayson Tatum battles for a rebound with the Charlotte Hornets' Miles Bridges. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

With a loss Tuesday night, the Boston Celtics’ fate is all but assured at this point: they’ll be playing in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament barring a stunning collapse by the New York Knicks, who are three games ahead of them in the standings with three games to play.

On top of that, the loss of Jaylen Brown for the rest of the season due to a torn scapholunate ligament in his left wrist feels like a death knell to any real hope of advancing deep into the postseason.

Then again, it’s no guarantee Boston will get a chance to take their licks against the Philadelphia 76ers or Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. They’ll have at least one game to win against a likely trio of opponents that are more than capable of capitalizing on their vulnerable state without Brown.

Here’s a look at the three teams the Celtics could face in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.

Charlotte Hornets, 33-36 (8th seed)

In a past life, the idea of seeing the Hornets as a threat might have been laughable.

Even with dynamic Rookie-of-the-Year candidate LaMelo Ball and former Celtics “Scary” Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward playing starring roles, Charlotte is still a young, largely inexperienced team that’s probably a year or two away from really doing anything in the playoffs.

What’s more, they’re not sure to have Hayward (foot) and high-flying forward Miles Bridges (health and safety protocols) back for a possible play-in matchup against the Celtics assuming the two teams play one another in the 7th-vs-8th-seed game.

Even Ball, who recently returned from a wrist injury many feared could end his season, has suffered big drops in shooting efficiency, both from the field and at the free-throw line, as he battles through discomfort with his shooting hand.

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They’re also a bottom-five team in terms of turnovers surrendered (15.0 turnovers a game, 26th in NBA).

But at this point, the Celtics can’t afford to take any opponent for granted.

Furthermore, the Hornets can shoot the lights out when they’re on (eighth in made 3-pointers, 11th in 3-point percentage). That’s not a great matchup for a Celtics team that ranks in the bottom 10 in 3-pointers and 3-point percentage allowed and is less equipped now to get into a long-range shootout.

Boston did take two of the three contests between the squads this year, but the two teams are closer talent-wise now than they were a few weeks ago without Brown in the picture.

Indiana Pacers, 33-36 (9th seed)

Much like the Celtics, the Pacers are limping into a play-in scenario after failing to repeat their success in 2020.

If the NBA hadn’t employed the play-in this year, the Pacers would’ve missed the playoffs entirely a season removed from being the fourth seed in the East.

2021 has not been kind to Indianapolis from an injury standpoint, with T.J. Warren (out for season) and Myles Turner (out since April 19)  with a torn ligament in his toe. Free-agent signee Malcolm Brogdon, along with several others, missed Tuesday’s play-in clinching win against Philadelphia with various ailments.

Also, if you’re worried about Brad Stevens losing control of the Celtics locker room, at least be thankful you’re not dealing with the “powder keg” Nake Bjorkgren has in Indy. At least no players are fighting assistant coaches here.

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Still, that gutsy win against the 76ers — even without Joel Embiid — shows they’re not to be taken lightly in a one-game scenario.

When healthy, the Pacers have three players who can score 20 points a game in All-Star Domantas Sabonis, Brogdon, and Caris LeVert, who is putting up career numbers in his expanded role since coming to Indianapolis from Brooklyn.

The Celtics would still have the best player on the floor in this matchup with Jayson Tatum, and an upward-trending Kemba Walker is a big plus at this point of the year.

But the loss of Jaylen Brown‘s physicality and versatility might hurt against the Pacers most of all.

Washington Wizards, 32-37 (10th seed)

Seeing the Wizards all but assure themselves of a shot at the postseason is pretty remarkable given how 2020-21 started out.

Quite frankly, Washington looked like one of the NBA’s worst teams for much of the season, losing their first five games and sitting at 19-33 back going into April 12.

Then came the eight-game win streak that changed their entire outlook, salvaging the first season of the Russell WestbrookBradley Beal partnership that always had the potential to be explosive.

Speaking of Westbrook, the tornadic guard has been on an absolute mission of late, averaging a ridiculous 26.5 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 17.2 assists so far in May. He’s put up 36 triple-doubles this season — the second-highest number of his career — and just broke Oscar Robertson‘s all-time record for triple-doubles Monday night.

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And Beal? He has simply feasted on the Celtics this season, putting up a 40.7 points per game average against them through three contests this year.

It’s true that the Wizards don’t really have anyone that will scare Boston outside of those two offensively, but solid play from role players like Daniel Gafford — who came to Washington in the trade package that sent Daniel Theis to Chicago — led to improved play on the defensive end in particular. They allowed their lowest points per game as a team during their hot month of April, suggesting they’re figuring out how to get stops when they need to.

Of the three teams on this list, this might be the one the Celtics least want to face — as funny as that may sound talking about the team with the worst record.

It’s not just because the Wizards have two All-Star guards capable of achieving supernova-level performances every night. They also have played the best recent basketball of the Celtics’ possible opponents coming into the play-in. And those teams are never safe to go up against this time of year.

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