Monday, April 11, 2016

Who Do the Celtics Want to Face in the First Round?

By Adam Lowenstein (@StatsAdam)

Each of the three Celtics’ potential first-round opponents, the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, will most likely enter the 2016 playoffs without one of the players that was part of their rotation entering this season: Tiago Splitter, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Chris Bosh, respectively.

Meanwhile, the C’s have been very fortunate on the injury front this season, as they are fully healthy entering the last week of the season. In fact, six of their top seven minutes-per-game producers have played more than 70 games this season. In addition, Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk would finish with an average of 65 games played if each play in the final two contests.

But, how confident should the Celtics feel with one of the lowest strengths of schedule in the NBA this season? On Saturday, Boston fell to the Hawks, with the loss giving Atlanta the season series, and therefore, the tiebreaker in the standings. The C’s are seeking to sweep their season series against the Hornets and Heat, as they host those squads at TD Garden on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

So, who should Boston be hoping to draw in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs? Let's take a look at the candidates.

Atlanta Hawks

Although Saturday’s high-scoring loss at the hands of Paul Millsap and the Hawks was on the second night of a back-to-back, it does not seem that can be an excuse for the young Celtics, who will finish the season with a 12-7 record on zero days rest. For anybody who has watched Brad Stevens’ squad this season, it is not surprising that the 12-7 winning percentage (.632) is better than the team’s record on one day (26-18, .591), two days (6-6, .500) and at least three days of rest (2-2, .500).

The reasons why the Hawks would win a first-round series against the Celtics are relatively simple: (1) Atlanta did so during the regular season; (2) the Hawks are a much better shooting team (they are in the top 10 in both effective field goal and true shooting percentage this season while the Celtics are in the bottom 10 in each category); and (3) the Hawks are a better defensive team. While both teams are elite on defensive end, the Hawks still allow two fewer points per 100 possessions than the Celtics.

If the Celtics beat the Hawks in a series, they will have to catch a few breaks. Since Atlanta is among the worst rebounding teams in the league, Boston would need to take advantage of the boards, especially on the offensive end. The C’s will also have to take advantage of Atlanta’s big weakness: turnovers.

Turnover percentage, an approximation of the number of turnovers per 100 plays, has a league-wide average of 13.2. The Celtics are among the best in the league in turning opponents over, and they are 22-8 when forcing their opponent into a turnover percentage of at least 15.0 this season. Unfortunately, two of those losses came against the Hawks; while one of the 22 wins was the November 13 victory over Atlanta, a 1-2 record against the Hawks when the Celtics are firing on their defensive cylinders is not something to hope for in the playoffs.

Charlotte Hornets

Unlike the Hawks, the Hornets are very good at handling the basketball. In fact, they are by far the best in the NBA in that category at just over 11 turnovers per 100 plays. Charlotte is a very interesting team this season, as the Hornets are a Top-10 offensive team, which cannot be said about the Celtics, Hawks or Heat, and the best defensive rebounding team in the league, but among the worst in terms of offensive rebounding.

In both of the previous meetings between the Celtics and Hornets this season, Boston’s starting lineup has clicked in most areas. The fact that nine of the 10 Celtics starters in the two contests had a plus/minus of at least +13 is very good for a Boston team that has been deemed “too deep” for the playoffs. The Celtics showed their starting lineup prowess, as they had all of the Hornets starters (minus former Celtic Al Jefferson, who was injured for the first game and suspended for the second) at negative double-digit plus/minus in each of the games.

In 2014, when Charlotte (then known as the Bobcats) was swept by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Heat, the Bobcats had just four players who are on the current Hornets roster. Kemba Walker and Jefferson were large parts of that team, but the other two were Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. The Hornets are the least playoff-tested team in this third-seed through sixth-seed mix, so that would be bode well for a Celtics team needing all the advantages they can get.

Miami Heat

When looking at the matchups during the 2015-16 season, unfortunately both of the Celtics contests against the Heat were without former Celtic/Sun/Hawk/Net Joe Johnson. After Boston’s 101-89 victory over Miami at TD Garden on February 27, the Heat officially announced that the organization had signed Johnson.

Since struggling against his former squad on March 28, he has scored double-digit points in each of his last six games. Johnson has proved to be a difficult matchup for the Celtics this season, as he scored almost 20 points per game on 50 percent shooting and 41 percent 3-point shooting in the three contests that were competitive between the Celtics and Nets.

Johnson played just over 18 minutes and scored just three points in the green’s blow out of Brooklyn on November 20, but with the first-round series expecting to be a hard-fought one, it seems that Johnson’s numbers in the close games are more pertinent.

With the Heat being a dangerous team with a long playoff pedigree, the Celtics would have their hands full with Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, former Celtic Gerald Green and company. On the bright side, the green forced 18 Heat turnovers in each of the teams’ first two meetings this season, and the Celtics are 20-7 when turning over their opponents that many times this season. Additionally, the Celtics forced the Heat to impressive turnover percentages of 17.4 and 15.6 in those games.

The Verdict

Not the Hawks.

If I have to choose, the verdict is the Hornets due to their lack of playoff experience together. The best of both worlds is the third seed against Charlotte, but a fourth seed is still an impressive feat for the Celtics after finishing in seventh last season. Although a fourth or fifth seed would mean a matchup with the Cavaliers in the second round, the best spot for the Celtics, who finished the season with a 20-21 road record, is to have home court.

For more sports coverage, follow Adam Lowenstein on Twitter at @StatsAdam. Statistics used from and and are through games on April 9.

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