By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference officially belongs to the Boston Celtics, thanks to the Green’s third straight victory in Orlando and a Toronto Raptors win on Sunday night.
Boston still has two games to play in the NBA bubble — Tuesday against Memphis and Thursday against Washington — but those are mere formalities at this point. The Celtics really don’t have much to play for over those two games, so expect a lot of Tremont Waters, Carsen Edwards and maybe even a little Tacko Fall as Boston’s regulars sit back and wait for their first-round opponent to reveal themselves.
There are three options for that first-round foe as the seeding games come to an end this week: The Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia is the current leader of the pack in the No. 6 seed in the East.
Just last week, Philadelphia was not a very appealing first-round opponent for Boston. The 76ers took three of the four regular season meetings between the two teams, which took place roughly a decade ago in October, December, January and February. Ben Simmons played all four of those games and averaged 18 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists, and Boston struggled against the size of Joel Embiid and Al Horford. If there was one team that most people wanted Boston to avoid in the first round, it was Philly.
But a lot has changed over the last week. Simmons is out, heading under the knife to remove a loose body from his left knee. Embiid injured his knee on Sunday and his status going forward is unknown. All of a sudden, Philadelphia could be without its two best players when the real season arrives.
The 76ers are 42-28 with games against the Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors, and Houston Rockets remaining on their bubble schedule. They are currently a game behind both the Heat and the Pacers, and given their currently health situation, probably won’t be climbing in the standings. They are the most likely opponent for the Celtics, and though it’s a bummer we likely won’t get to see Boston take on the 76ers at full strength, it should prove to be a much easier path to the second round for Boston.
But at this point in an extremely odd season, you’ll take any kind of breaks that come your way.
As for the Heat and the Pacers, both are 43-27 and sit as the No. 4 and No. 5 seed, respectively. They’ll square off against each other on Monday and Friday, with the Heat taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday while the Pacers will meet the Rockets. There’s a chance on of them may fall down to No. 6, but it’s more likely they’ll flip flop in the middle of the standings. Both teams own the tie-breaker over Philadelphia, as both went 3-1 against the 76ers during the regular season.
Boston went 2-1 against the Heat during the 2019-20 season. They beat them by 19 points in Boston in early December thanks to 31 points from Jaylen Brown and 28 points from Kemba Walker. They beat them again 109-101 in Miami in late January off 29 points by Gordon Hayward. Boston’s lone loss against Miami came last Tuesday in Orlando, when the Heat embarrassed the Celtics without Jimmy Butler. At least it appears that loss got the Celtics out of their bubble funk, sparking three straight Boston victories.
The Celtics went 1-1 against the Pacers, clinching a playoff spot with a win in Indiana the night before the NBA shut down the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pacers came back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Celtics, 122-117, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in December.
Unfortunately, with all three teams playing on Friday, the Celtics won’t know their first-round opponent until the end of the week. But the way it is shaping up, it looks like it will be Philly in Round 1, a matchup that was not very promising just a week ago, but suddenly looks much more enticing for Boston.