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Celtics are playoff-bound: Breaking down potential first-round opponents

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers could host the Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs. (AP photo)

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers could host the Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs. (AP photo)

For the first time in the post-big-three, Doc Rivers era, the Boston Celtics are going to make the playoffs.

They learned their fate late Monday night after Chicago blew out Brooklyn, 113-86.

“We didn’t even know we had a chance back in the beginning of January,” Tyler Zeller said after Sunday’s 117-78 win over undermanned Cleveland. “It says a lot about the group we have just coming out every night and competing.”

The Celtics’ final two games – Tuesday against Toronto, and Wednesday in Milwaukee – will determine whether they secure the seventh seed and play the Cleveland Cavaliers, or the eighth seed and play the Atlanta Hawks.

Either matchup will feature the Celtics as a long shot.

Best-case scenario, the Celtics draw the Hawks in the first round. They can make that a competitive series and push it to six games – maybe seven.

“The catalyst for Boston’s turnaround can be traced to their play after the Feb. 19 trade deadline passed,” said A. Sherrod Blakely of Comcast Sports Network New England.

“That is when they acquired Isaiah Thomas who on Monday was named the Eastern Conference player of the week after leading the Celtics to a perfect 3-0 week – the second time he has received that award since joining the Celtics.

“Throughout the turbulent ups and downs of the season which included trading away the team’s top scorer (Jeff Green) and top assist man (Rajon Rondo), head coach Brad Stevens never let this team get too high on their success or too low when they struggled.”

Atlanta Hawks 

During the regular season, the Celtics went 1-2 against the Hawks, two of those games were decided by less than 5 points. The other a 14-point Hawk win.

For the Celtics to compete with Atlanta, they need to dominate the offensive and defensive glass. Atlanta is 28th in the league in rebounding. If the Celtics can win the rebounding margin and force second-chance points they have a shot in the first round. The Celtics won all three rebounding matchups during the three regular season games (138-110).

The Celtics also have to buckle down defensively. Both teams can score and lay up 100-plus points every night, but the Celtics are not a fundamentally sound defensive team.

Atlanta plays great team basketball. They are unselfish and assist on almost every basket. They averaged 25.9 assists per game, good enough for second in the league. With a lot of passing, sometimes come turnovers. Although the Hawks take care of the basketball (only 13.4 turnovers per game), when they do turn it over the Celtics will need to make them pay. The Celtics did exactly that during their three regular season contests, winning the points off turnovers each game and by a total of 88-39.

For the Celtics to win this series it starts with rebounding, playing sound defensively, and forcing and cashing in on turnovers.

Prediction: Atlanta in seven.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Celtics do not want to draw the Cavs in the first round. Although they split the regular season matchups, 2-2, the Celtics two wins came at a time when LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Love did not play, or played extremely limited minutes.

In November, the Celtics fell 122-121 at the TD Garden, but that was only eight games into a young season and James-Irvin-Love were still getting accustomed to each other on the court.

So as a judge would throw out evidence in a court case, those three games don’t qualify, which leaves us with the final game yet to be discussed. On March 3, with both teams at even strength, the Cavs blew out the Celtics 110-79. The 31-point loss was the largest of the season.

The series would be just as ugly as that game.

Prediction: Cleveland in five.

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