Earlier this week, the Boston Celtics were staring at the possibility of having to play a tough, well-coached Miami Heat team in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs.
It would have been a difficult series for the Celtics. They barely got past the Heat in last season's Eastern Conference Finals that went seven games. But the Heat were upset by the Atlanta Hawks in the play-in tournament. Now it's the Hawks coming to Boston to play the Celtics in Round 1.
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How much better of a matchup are the Hawks than the Heat?
"(The Celtics) dodged a bullet because I didn't want any part of Jimmy Butler in the first round," Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix told NBC Sports Boston's Abby Chin. "I didn't want any part of Bam Adebayo. I didn't want any part of Joe Mazzulla versus Erik Spoelstra in a first-round series. That was not a series I wanted. In fact, if Miami had won, it might have been a series where I would have picked an upset in that first round.
"Atlanta, I feel completely differently because the Hawks all season long have been the very definition of mediocre. They were a mediocre .500 team under Nate McMillan. Quin Snyder comes in, they make some changes, but they are still a mediocre .500 team. All credit to them -- the way they played against Miami was brilliant. Trae Young showed up. Dejounte Murray showed up. All their bench players showed up. They rebounded the hell out of the basketball.
"But this is still a team that I think the Celtics have huge advantages over at multiple positions, and I think this is the matchup the Celtics want."
Celtics Talk: Celtics set to face the Hawks after upset win over Heat, plus Derrick White 1-on-1 | Listen & Subscribe
How does Mannix see this Celtics-Hawks series unfolding?
"I do think the Celtics win this series in five games," Mannix explained. "I'm just not big on Atlanta. I've seen a lot of them this season. They've been dysfunctional for most of it, average at best. They did have a great win against Miami. Take nothing away from them.
"But I think that's the very best Atlanta can play, and I don't think Miami is on the same level as Boston. I think the Celtics, fully healthy -- Jaylen Brown is going to be back. Marcus Smart is going to be back. Rob Williams III, presumably, will be at full strength. This Celtics team should cruise in this series. I think they win it in five games."
If the Celtics eliminate the Hawks, they likely will play the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. Boston won three of four meetings versus Philly in the regular season. The C's also have won eight of their last nine playoff games versus the Sixers.
Mannix sees that success over the 76ers continuing for the Celtics if they meet in the conference semifinals.
"Well, look, they are on the right side of the playoff bracket because Atlanta is probably as good as you want to get in that first round," Mannix said. "And then you probably get Philadelphia in the second. And the Sixers, look, Joel Embiid probably is going to win MVP this year. James Harden. Great. Tyrese Maxey. Great.
"Look at the last couple of years -- the Celtics have owned the Sixers. Every time they match up with them, they play well. It took a herculean performance by Joel Embiid a couple of weeks ago -- 52 points -- just to beat Boston by a couple. So I just like the Celtics in this matchup. Al Horford traditionally plays pretty well against Embiid. Rob Williams is another body to throw at him and again, the backcourt strength of the Celtics defensively. Tyrese Maxey and James Harden -- the Celtics are one of the few teams out there that are going to have those types of guards to throw at them, to defend them and force them into inefficient nights. I think the Celtics get past the second round."
If the Celtics reach the Eastern Conference Finals, the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks likely will be waiting for them. The Celtics defeated the Bucks in seven games in a second-round series last season, but this year Milwaukee has homecourt advantage.
Mannix isn't as confident in Boston's ability to take down Milwaukee.
"Then you get to where I think the Celtics lose, just because I can't bet against Milwaukee," Mannix admitted. "They've been cruising all season long. They're 29-7 since late January. They had a 16-game winning streak. They've played only 33 games this year with Khris Middleton and they still had the NBA's best record. All the things the Celtics have -- strength in the front court, the Bucks got it. Strength in the backcourt, with Khris Middleton Jrue Holiday, the Bucks got it. Depth -- Bobby Portis, top sixth man on that team.
"And for star power, as good as Jayson Tatum is, and as good as Brown is, the Bucks are going to have the best player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks, to me, when they're fully healthy, just have this synergy, this ability to cruise. And I think that's going to be a really tough matchup for the Celtics to win."