Boston Celtics: Depleted 76ers look likely for first round of playoffs

Boston Celtics (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Boston Celtics (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Boston Celtics are locked into the #3 seed, and their playoff opponent increasingly looks likely to be a Philadelphia 76ers team ravaged by injuries.

With Sunday’s victory over the Orlando Magic, the Boston Celtics have solidified their position as the #3 seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoff picture. Now 4-2 in the bubble, Boston has gone from a team incapable of putting together two good halves to a surging squad who has rattled off three straight wins against playoff contemporaries like Toronto, Brooklyn, and Orlando.

Meanwhile, the next three playoff slots are separated by one game. The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers share an identical record at 43-27 and have two games left against each other and three remaining overall. Miami needs just one more win to own the tiebreaker, having edged out Indiana by one on December 27th at the American Airlines Arena.

The Philadelphia 76ers sit right behind them at 42-28, and also have three games to make up two games on the Pacers. Indiana owns the tiebreaker over Philly via a 3-1 season series victory, though, making it increasingly likely the Sixers are the team that ends up slotted in at the #6 seed barring running the table against the Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets. Phoenix will be fighting for their playoff lives, while Houston will be looking to solidify their standing as the #4 seed.

Playing Philadelphia in the first round would be a best-case scenario for the C’s. With Ben Simmons already likely to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury and Joel Embiid also going down in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Portland Trailblazers with an ankle injury, the 76ers are living on borrowed time in the bubble.

Meanwhile, the C’s would likely run a Philadelphia squad led by Tobias Harris and Al Horford off the floor. Even if Embiid is healthy, being without an All-Star averaging 16/8/8 on 58 percent shooting in Simmons is likely too much of a disruption to the offense for the Sixers to overcome.

Al Horford becomes a more critical piece for the Sixers now, and his fit next to Embiid has been tenuous at best. The C’s passing up on offering him anything similar to what Philadelphia did has proven to be a great choice, as Horford’s counting stats have declined while his play has tanked the starting lineup and forced him to be an overpaid sixth man.

The final three seeding games for the #4-#6 seeds in the east could render this conversation moot, but don’t expect things to shift too much. Indiana and Miami seem destined for a first-round playoff matchup, while the wounded 76ers look like prime prey for the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals that start in just over a week’s time.

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