Celtics

Uphill Battle for Boston’s Playoff Path

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With the 2020-2021 NBA regular season coming to a close, the Boston Celtics successfully stumbled their way into the playoff picture.

Jaylen-Less Celtics Stumble Into Play-In

After the dust settled, the C’s found themselves holding the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Rather than knowing their playoff opponent, the Celtics will have to beat the Wizards or the winner of Pacers-Hornets on Thursday in the inaugural play-in round to officially make the playoffs.

Right now, three paths lay ahead of the Celtics. Winning the first play-in game would guarantee a matchup against former-Celtic Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Losing to Washington would create a must-win scenario to keep Boston’s playoff hopes alive. From there, another chapter of the Celtics-76ers playoff saga would unfold. Dropping both play-in games sends the C’s brass to the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery.

It can be assumed that Boston would be higher than the seventh seed if it were not for the numerous injuries and COVID-19 related setbacks. Similarly, Jaylen Brown‘s absence in the midst of a career-best season does not help their case either. The supporting cast behind Jayson Tatum, however, is sufficient enough to make the playoffs.

PLAY-IN VS. WASHINGTON

The guard trio of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart and Evan Fournier must contain the dynamic duo from the nation’s capitol. In three meetings this season, Bradley Beal has averaged 40.7 points per game against Boston this year.

Conversely, Jaylen had been averaging an astounding 26 points while grabbing 10 rebounds per contest against the Wizards. For Boston to be successful, the load must be picked up by the bench while taking advantage of Beal not being fully healthy.

PLAY-IN GAME VERSUS CHARLOTTE/INDIANA

Losing to the Wizards sends the Celtics to the win-or-go-home battle for the No. 8 seed. Normally, Boston fans should be rooting for the Hornets to upset the Pacers. Led by Domantas Sabonis, Indiana creates a matchup problem for the C’s.

Unfortunately for Indiana, however, they are dealing with a plethora of injuries that creates significant depth issues at any point in the postseason. The duo of Sabonis and Myles Turner could create a matchup issue, as Boston team that rarely runs a big lineup, but Turner is set to miss the 9-10 play-in contest Tuesday night.

On the other hand, Charlotte’s guard play may be a difference-maker for a short-handed Boston team. Two former Celtics, Gordon Hayward (also sidelined) and Terry Rozier, helped lead their franchise to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Accompanied by potential Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, the C’s may end up having their hands full against a very young and athletic Hornets squad.

Either way, Boston will need Tatum to play his best basketball.

ROUND ONE: PHILADELPHIA OR BROOKLYN

Barring a pair of upsets in the play-in tournament, Boston will meet either the Nets or Sixers in Round 1. Yes, Boston winning game one means they go to the playoffs.

But they would fare better against Joel Embiid and the 76ers compared to Brooklyn’s Big 3.

Despite the standings, Brooklyn is the better team. They have been without at least one of their top-three players for most of the season.

An upset over one of the top-two seeds in the Eastern Conference may be a daunting task without Jaylen, but Kevin Garnett once said “Anything Is Possible”!

Offensively, no team in the league can keep up with Brooklyn when Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant are hitting on all cylinders. For the Sixers, their well-rounded lineup may be difficult to guard for Boston now. Due to these circumstances, the Celtics are a combined 0-6 against these two teams in the regular season. With Stevens’ supporting cast coming to play, the spirited C’s may make the series interesting.

The keys for the Celtics in either matchup will be their guard play and defense. Big men Robert Williams III and Tristan Thompson must anchor the paint and out-rebound their opponents to put the squad in the best position to succeed.

EARLY EXIT: TO THE LOTTERY

Despite Boston picking rookie Aaron Nesmith with the 14th overall pick last season, the bottom half of the league standings is unfamiliar territory for the Boston Celtics. Having Boston on the outside looking in may result in a franchise shake-up.

Does Stevens get fired? Will Jaylen or Marcus Smart get traded? What will happen to Danny Ainge?

A lot of questions must be answered heading into the offseason, but it’s hard to see the Celtics getting rid of any the aforementioned parts of their franchise. The positive side of missing the playoffs, however, is a better draft pick. The C’s can use it in a trade package or select another young piece to add to their current core.

PREDICTION

  • Emerge from the play-in, lose to either first-round opponent in five games.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Even without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are more than capable of winning at least one of the two play-in games.
    • Defeating Washington may take the pressure off knowing they advanced, but awaiting the Nets may be an issue.
    • Losing the first game and winning the second would create a clash with the Sixers and their MVP candidate. Long term, the Celtics would have a more favorable playoff path if they were to upset Philadelphia.
  • Missing the playoffs would be upsetting and potentially lead to a team-altering move, but their lottery pick could come in and make the team better for next season when fully healthy.

Follow us on Twitter @CelticsLead for the latest Celtics news and insight. 

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