Boston Celtics

NBA playoff picture: Are Celtics, Sixers on Round 1 collision course?

The Celtics would have their hands full with Joel Embiid in the first round.

NBC Universal, Inc.

The Boston Celtics already have clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and are well on their way to wrapping up the NBA's No. 1 overall seed, with a six-game advantage on the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder with eight games left in the regular season.

But there's still a reason for Celtics to scoreboard-watch down the stretch.

The bottom half of the East playoff bracket is tightening up, with a pair of perennial contenders -- the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers -- emerging as potential first-round opponents for Boston. With Sixers star Joel Embiid reportedly expected to return from a knee injury as soon as this week, a Round 1 matchup with Philly would be a fascinating development for a Celtics team with NBA Finals aspirations.

So, what's the likelihood that Boston draws Philly in Round 1, and which other teams are in the mix as potential opponents?

First, here's a look at the top five in the East as of Monday morning:

The Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks should finish as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively. The Orlando Magic are up 1.5 games on the No. 6 Indiana Pacers, so we may not see any change in the top five aside from potential shuffling between the 3-5 seeds.

As the No. 1 seed, Boston would draw the No. 8 seed, which under the NBA's new playoff format would be the runner-up in the East play-in tournament (aka the loser of the "winner's bracket" game).

The play-in tournament is factored into Basketball Reference's "Playoff Probabilities Report," which calculates the percent likelihood of each team finishing in each seed based on 10,000 simulations for the rest of the season.

Here's a look at the current No. 6 through No. 10 seeds, and the percent chance of each team drawing the No. 8 seed to face the Celtics:

Basketball Reference projects Philly as Boston's most likely first-round opponent as of April 1, and there's a good reason why.

Barring a late surge from the Heat or Sixers or a Pacers slip-up, Miami and Philly are on a collision course to meet in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 play-in tournament matchup, with the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks facing off in the 9-10 matchup.

If the Heat win the 7-8 matchup -- the higher seed would have home court -- the Sixers would just have to beat the winner of Bulls-Hawks at home to land the No. 8 seed and draw the Celtics.

Of course, anything can happen in the play-in tournament; we saw the Hawks upset the Heat in last season's 7-8 matchup, only for Miami to beat the Bulls to secure the No. 8 seed and surge all the way to the NBA Finals.

But both Miami and Philly would be favored over either the Trae Young-less Hawks or Zach LaVine-less Bulls, so if you're playing the odds, the Celtics' most likely playoff opponent is probably the loser of that 7-8 matchup -- which means Jimmy Butler and the Heat or Embiid and the Sixers.

Contact Us