Ranking The Top Challengers To The Celtics In The East Playoffs

The Boston Celtics locked up the top seed in the Eastern Conference with nearly a month to play in the season. They currently hold a 14-game lead on second with three games to play, and will be the heavy favorites to reach their second NBA Finals in three years.

Even with their regular season dominance, there are just enough lingering questions about the Celtics in the playoffs — particularly their struggles closing out games in recent years — that would normally lead to some pundits cautioning against predicting a romp through the East. However, this year there is not just a gulf between Boston and the rest of the conference, but there are very few teams that even look like they’re rounding into their best form as the regular season comes to a close.

Because of that, the Celtics have incredibly high odds to make the Finals, both at sportsbooks and in probability models. They’re -140 to win the East, with ESPN’s BPI giving them a 54.6 percent chance at making the Finals. Others, like Playoff Status, are up at 69 percent. Things are rarely that simple, but finding East teams capable of threatening them in a 7-game set is pretty difficult right now. Let’s go down the list and see who might give Boston a scare, going from least to most imposing threat.

9. Chicago Bulls

Respectfully, no. I could see a gentlemen’s sweep in the first round on the backs of a hot shooting night from the Bulls but, c’mon. No.

8. Atlanta Hawks

They did win two games against the Celtics recently, one in rather hysterical fashion with Dejounte Murray scoring 44 points on 44 shots, so I can’t say they don’t have a chance. Trae Young is coming back which, in theory, should help Atlanta — remember, Young gave the Celtics all they could handle last year in their series that went six games. But with their perimeter defense, I just cannot see how they pull more than a game or two off of Boston, even if they get back to full strength.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

I’m sorry to the good people of Cleveland, but I cannot take this Cavs team seriously right now. I’m not sure this Cavs team takes themselves seriously right now. It’s not easy to be the worst vibes team in the East right now with the way Milwaukee’s going, but I think Cleveland currently holds that title. There are a lot of very good players on this team, but it is just not working and they have suffered some dreadful losses of late, while Donovan Mitchell just does not look right due to his knee issues. Add in how they performed in last year’s playoffs and I’m just out on the Cavs as a threat this year, which is a shame because I really thought they’d made themselves better in the offseason.

6. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers can score with anyone. Can they stop the Celtics? Probably not. But I will say this, if Indiana — which has some impressive wins of late — is shooting well, they can at least apply some pressure to Boston. I don’t think it’s enough to win four times in seven games, but with Tyrese Haliburton finding his shooting form again (40.5 percent from three in the last 10 games) after a slump when he rushed back from a hamstring injury and Pascal Siakam playing very well in the space provided, they could pick off a game or two. I have a hard time seeing how they keep up for a full series because of their defense, but they could certainly avoid a sweep and make a few games very interesting with their shooting.

5. Orlando Magic

Orlando has been one of the NBA’s best defensive units all season, and can send waves of length and size at Boston at every position. The question for the Magic is on the other end. Paolo Banchero has grown tremendously as a scorer and playmaker this year and Franz Wagner, even in a down shooting year, creates problems for defenses with his physicality and ability to get downhill. I’m fairly confident those two will continue their strong play because their styles seem to fit well with how playoff basketball is played. That said, there are legitimate questions about how the guard play will hold up against a team like Boston, and there will be a gigantic gulf in three-point shooting between the two teams. The margin for error for Orlando would be razor thin because most nights they’re going to get beat from the three-point line, and for a young team getting their first taste of playoff basketball, it’s hard to buy into them in a whole series.

4. Miami Heat

I’ll be honest, I don’t know what to think of the Heat. They’ve been a middling team all year, but we also know the regular season is, as Josh Hart noted, just used by Jimmy Butler to do side quests before locking in for the playoffs. As long as Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Erik Spoelstra are there, Miami is going to have a high floor in the playoffs. They have proven capable of designing and executing a plan to frustrate the Celtics stars in the past. That said, their ceiling certainly isn’t as high as Boston’s, and the makeup of the rest of the team is a bit different.

The Heat would need another incredible shooting stretch from the supporting cast and Boston spent this offseason building a roster with the sole focus of covering up the holes Miami exposed a year ago. That said, it would be an incredible test of Boston’s mental fortitude as much as anything else if they ran into the Heat in the first round, because Miami would absolutely ask the same questions as last year and see if Boston has learned the answers. And if the Heat took a Game 1 off of the Celtics? That would be one hell of a test for a team has been criticized in the past for struggling when they get punched in the mouth.

3. New York Knicks

The Knicks will have to go through the postseason without Julius Randle, which leaves them without the frontcourt scoring punch to serve as a balance to Jalen Brunson’s brilliance on the perimeter. That is a real concern against the Celtics offensive firepower, but I still think the Knicks could be a thorn in Boston’s side, plus Randle’s playoff history isn’t exactly sparkling, so it’ll be fascinating to see how big of a deal not having him in the playoffs is. New York has the defense to muck things up and have the length and versatility to create some interesting problems for Boston’s stars, particularly with OG Anunoby back in the lineup. That would make for a fascinating matchup on that end of the floor, but Boston also has the ability to present more problems to Brunson than any other team with their strength at the point of attack thanks to Jrue Holiday and Derrick White.

The Knicks ability to really push the Celtics in a series would be dependent on their wings knocking down threes at a high rate to keep Boston’s defense honest, but if they can hit shots, New York has the size and physicality on defense to try and mimic the Miami gameplan that bothered the Celtics a year ago. Boston, of course, hopes they’ve made the right additions in Holiday and Porzingis to create alternate pressure points and make it harder to execute that type of plan. Of the likely second round opponents, I think New York is the one that can create the most stress for Boston.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers are getting healthy and are the only team in the East that you would really say is peaking at the right time. Tyrese Maxey is on a heater, Joel Embiid is steadily finding his footing and looking like his regular self, and De’Anthony Melton just came back and gives them some needed backcourt depth. We saw last year that Philly is certainly capable of giving the Celtics problems, as they probably should’ve won that second round series. With a healthy Embiid-Maxey combo, Philly presents a unique challenge from any other team in the East, and if they can hit shots around those two, they are certainly dangerous.

That said, they also are one of the few teams with more playoff scar tissue to overcome than Boston. While the Celtics have to prove they can get over the hump and win a title, the Sixers will feel pressure just to get past the conference semis. As such, when these two teams meet would likely factor heavily into who feels the most pressure. If it’s a first round series — meaning the Sixers wouldn’t get through until the second Play-In game — I think the pressure would be felt by Philly because of their many early exits. If it’s a Conference Finals, then Philly will have gotten over the proverbial hump of the second round and would be playing freed up, while Boston would feel the pressure to get to the Finals in a year where that’s the baseline expectation.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks were supposed to be their top challenger and may still be, but even with Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way, Milwaukee seems to be actively trying to make sure no one is buying them as a threat as the regular season comes to a close. Prior to Tuesday’s win in Boston, they lost four straight games to the Wizards, Grizzlies, Raptors, and Knicks, with Doc Rivers having to invent new ways to shift blame off of himself after each loss. Milwaukee has been a .500 team under Rivers’ guidance, and while they certainly have the clearest upside with their star duo, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez, they also have proven they can lose to anyone on any given night.

Even so, they’ve shown they can play up to the level of their competition as often as they play down to it. They’re 8-4 against above .500 teams since the All-Star break and showed on Tuesday they do have an extra gear to find (aided by some hot three-point shooting). It must be noted that Boston had little reason to be as invested in that game, but even so, the Bucks remain the biggest threat provided their top stars are healthy, which is of course a real question after Giannis went down with a calf strain. If he is able to fully recover and be back to his normal availability by the time these two teams meet in the playoffs, Milwaukee poses the biggest threat to the Celtics in the East. If he cannot, the door opens even further for Boston.