This is a guest post from Brett David Roberts. Brett is a former editor here at Hardwood Houdini and is the current editor at Presto in the Paint–the Fansided Orlando Magic site. You can follow Brett @BDRHoops on twitter.
The Boston Celtics are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference and trail the sixth seeded Chicago Bulls by just two games. Moving up in the standings is imperative, if only to avoid falling to the eighth spot, currently occupied by the Milwaukee Bucks, who trail the C’s by two games.
Avoiding the eighth seed is absolutely crucial. The Miami Heat are all but assured of finishing with the best record in the East. Though the C’s beat Miami in their first game since Rajon Rondo went down with the ACL injury, the Heat are obviously the team that every club in the East seeks to avoid.
If the playoffs started today, the Celtics would face the New York Knicks in the first round. If they escaped that series with a victory, a second round matchup would come against the Indiana Pacers or Chicago Bulls. That’s good news because both teams play a style that the C’s can matchup favorably against. In fact, during their 11-4 run without Rondo, they defeated the Bulls.
But beyond the obvious, let’s look at the opponent the C’s must avoid (as long as possible) to reach the 2013 NBA Finals, however improbable that may seem to many at this point.
1) Miami Heat
The Miami Heat are 42-14 and nearly unbeatable at home (26-3). Since the Heat will have the home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs most likely, teams will dread the prospect of playing the majority of the series at American Airlines Arena.
Beyond the fact that the Heat are superb at home, their Big Three poses matchup challenges for every team in the league. The Boston Celtics do have the personnel to match up fairly well with the Heat, but they’re still the team no one wants to see—especially not in the first round.
Avery Bradley can cover Dwyane Wade and Kevin Garnett can do a job on Chris Bosh, but that still leaves the Heat’s best player to be checked by the tandem of Paul Pierce and Jeff Green.
While Green is an above-average defender of small forwards, Pierce’s defense leaves a lot to be desired. And he certainly would have his work cut out for him with the league’s reigning MVP. The C’s beat the Heat in their first game without Rajon Rondo, but the regular season is a far different animal than the playoffs, and LBJ has undoubtedly saved his best play for the 2013 postseason.
The Celtics did take the Heat to a game seven in the 2012 NBA playoffs, and they did it without Avery Bradley. And while the team has won 11 of 15 without Rajon Rondo, missing their starting point guard could be more damaging in the long run. Moreover, Chris Bosh missed the first four games of that series, and the C’s didn’t seem to stand much of a chance when the Heat regained their third leading scorer. They lost the final three games of the series after leading 3-1.
The Heat are a very good team in the half-court in addition to being good on the fast break. Teams as good as the Heat have few weakness to exploit, and the Heat’s one Achilles heel has been rebounding. The C’s are also a horrible rebounding team, so that advantage couldn’t even be exploited.
2) New York Knicks
The Celtics have split their two games with the New York Knicks this season, but only one of those games featured Rajon Rondo in the lineup. The game they won? You guessed it, the game without No. 9 playing. On Jan. 7, the C’s defeated the Knicks 102-96 behind an effort that featured five Celtics players scoring in double-figures.
In the contest, Jeff Green came off the bench to score 16 points, and Green has averaged 16 a game since Rajon Rondo went down. Avery Bradley and Jason Terry started in the backcourt and held the Knicks backcourt of Jason Kidd and Ronnie Brewer to 11 combined points on 4-of-9 shooting.
In the contest, Kidd was visibly frustrated trying to get the ball up the court with the backcourt defense of Avery Bradley posing all kinds of problems. Kidd had an uncharacteristic three turnovers, and though the Knicks had only 13 as a team, the C’s kept themselves to just 10 turnovers in the contest.
Even with the C’s having defeated the Knicks already without Rondo, the Knicks are still a tough team to face in the East. They are 21-8 at home this season and would have home court advantage in a matchup against the Celtics.
Boston is just 10-18 on the road this season, so any of the top teams with home court advantage will pose a problem for Doc Rivers’ squad, but the Knicks rank second as the team that the C’s don’t want to face in the playoffs.
They may lack the firepower necessary to keep pace with the Knicks transition game, and while Rondo may have been a weak spot in the defense in half-court sets, the C’s will miss his ability to pay passing lanes when the Knicks try to initiate transition offense.
3) Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers are going to be a rough opponent in the 2013 playoffs. That’s mostly because the Pacers tough defense and gritty half-court play is well-suited for playoff basketball. The Celtics haven’t faced the Pacers yet without Rajon Rondo this season, so gauging their prospects against Frank Vogel’s team is a little more tricky.
In the last matchup between the teams on Jan. 4, the C’s blew Indiana out 94-75. But that blowout was driven by the great play of Rondo, who shot 9-of-14 from the floor en route to 18 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and a block. Avery Bradley shot just 3-of-11, but played superb defense on Paul George, who shot just 4-of-18 on the evening.
Bradley’s defense against George will prove to be the deciding factor in a series against the Pacers. Danny Granger returned to the court for the Pacers, too. Granger adds one more serious perimeter threat, and the Celtics will have to account for the Pacers tough inside/outside game which features the 7’2″ Roy Hibbert in the paint.
Amazingly, the Celtics out-rebounded the Pacers 49-47 in the Jan. 4 victory. But Boston is the NBA’s worst rebounding team, ranking last in rebound rate. They also don’t block many shots. That means Hibbert and power forward David West could potentially have a very big series. The Celtics may have defeated the Pacers the last time the teams faced one another, but this could be one of the more difficult matchups for Doc Rivers’ squad.