Boston Celtics: Road to the NBA Finals

Boston Celtics: Road to the NBA Finals article feature image
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Pictured: Tobias Harris guards Jayson Tatum. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The 2022-23 NBA has been defined by its parity. There is no dominant team, there is no massive favorite. The road to the NBA Finals is thought to be as wide open as ever, even if the Eastern Conference is top-heavy with the best three teams. The Eastern Conference champion could be any of the Bucks, Celtics or 76ers.

But what if the answer has been in front of us the whole time?

The Boston Celtics are No. 1 in:

SRS: a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule

538’s RAPTOR and ELO Finals probabilties

Basketball Reference’s Finals probability

They also have the No. 2 schedule-adjusted offense and No. 4 schedule-adjusted defense at DunksAndThrees.com.

I currently have the Celtics as a 1-point favorite on a neutral court against the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. It’s close, but Boston should be the favorites to win the NBA Finals.

The Celtics are +340, compared to the Bucks at +240 at FanDuel.

Those are the numbers, but what does Boston's path to finally getting its 18th banner look like?

PLAYOFF POSITIONING

The Boston Celtics have clinched the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and the Milwaukee Bucks have clinched the No. 1 seed.

Boston will face the winner of the 7-8 play-in tournament game between Miami and either Toronto or Atlanta.

Should Boston advance, it will face the winner of 76ers-Nets.

(This could theoretically change if the Nets lose out and Miami wins out. The Nets’ magic number for the No. 6 seed is 1.)

Boston will not face Milwaukee until at least the conference finals, and will have home-court advantage against any other opponent in the playoffs, including the Finals.

THE PATH

The Celtics landed a favorable playoff path. A team I had concerns about their matchup with was the Cavaliers, whose size and defensive acumen caused Boston problems in the regular season. But the Cavs are on the other side of the bracket and have to go through a good Knicks team and then Milwaukee if the Bucks advance (most likely).

Boston’s most likely first-round opponent is Miami. The Heat haven't been great this year, but they’ve been significantly better than the Hawks-BullsRaptors combo behind them. If it’s any of those three teams, the Celtics should handle business in short order. The Raptors have historically played the Celtics tough, but there just hasn’t been anything tough about the Raptors this season.

The Heat obviously faced the Celtics in last year’s conference finals and pushed them to seven games. Jimmy Butler had a real chance of stealing that series in what would have been a shocker. Miami is a splinter you can never quite seem to get from your paw, but the Heat also aren't a wound that can prove fatal. Miami make its living on defense, but has a bottom-five defense, worse than the Mavericks, since the All-Star break.

The 76ers are a marquee, star-studded affair. Philadelphia got a big win Tuesday behind Joel Embiid’s 52 points. However, Embiid is 11-21 in his career against Boston, and 3-5 in his past six. He seems to have figured out the Al Horford matchup that used to give him so much trouble, but even in Tuesday’s game, it took 52 points for him to beat Boston without Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams. Oh, and that was in Philadelphia, too.

That series won’t be easy. Embiid’s playing at a high level, but the Celtics will be rightfully favored.

Then there’s the Bucks.

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that the Bucks took the Celtics to seven games without Khris Middleton last year and have been an absolute beast of a team since Middleton returned in January. The other is that Boston has matched up well with the Bucks and given them problems, including a 41-point beatdown last week.

This, to me, is the biggest takeaway from looking at Boston’s path. There are pitfalls and bad matchups for the other teams. There are big things that could fall apart for the other top contenders in the East. With the Bucks, it’s their shooting, which waxes and wanes wildly in the postseason. For Philadelphia it’s their star players’ consistency and, at times, defense.

Boston’s big weakness is its reliance on 3-point shooting, but their hyper-switchable defensive roster makes up for it. And when things get tight, they have two 30-point scorers who can get their own bucket.

The Celtics are priced short to win the conference, as you would expect. Given that the Bucks will finish with the No. 1 seed, the number being this close is indicative of how the books feel about Boston (or at least that the market handle has reflected such a sentiment).

The Bucks are the best team in the conference by record, but every number that has indicated team strength in the past leans toward Boston.

The Celtics’ path to the NBA Finals isn’t the easiest, but their position remains ideal for a second consecutive run.

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Doug Ziefel
Jul 19, 2024 UTC